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Cops May Be Liable for Felling Occupy Berkeley

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - Police must face excessive-force claims related to an Occupy protest they dispersed at the University of California, Berkeley, a federal judge ruled.

The protesters claimed to have been engaged in a peaceful protest of tuition hikes and the privatization of public education when officers battered them and used excessive force.

After police raided their Sproul Hall encampment on Nov. 9, 2011, hundreds of protestors allegedly returned later that evening and erected more tents.

They said Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Harry LeGrande warned them to remove their tents before the police arrived 10 p.m., at which time they would allegedly give a 10-minute warning and remove the tents by force. Officers actually arrived in riot gear at 9:30 and raided the encampment, according to the complaint.

The protestors allegedly linked arms to face the police, who again used their batons, "but this time with even more brutality, pushing and jabbing people and using overhand strokes on protestors' heads," according to the complaint.

"The officers grabbed and indiscriminately pulled some of the protestors out of the lines and placed them under arrest," the added. Even after removing the tents, some officers allegedly continued to beat the protestors, who were reinforced with hundreds more concerned students, according to the complaint. At least 2,000 people allegedly amassed before the officers "ceased their attack on the protestors."

A group of 29 then sued school police, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the Oakland Police Department for excessive force, false arrest, retaliatory prosecution and abuse of process. They said university officials had set in motion or ignored the police action that caused their injuries.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers last week found the allegations sufficient against some officers who were directly involved in alleged beating of protestors, but she dismissed claims against supervisors and others not directly involved.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department failed to show that the claims against its officers were "unwarranted deductions of fact or unreasonable inferences," according to the ruling.

She cited multiple specific allegations from the lawsuit, including a claim that Officer Obichere, "who appeared to weigh over 250 pounds, focused on [Plaintiff Christopher] Anderson and hit him with tremendous force about five times with increasing intensity. In addition to jabs, this officer used overhand swings and struck Mr. Anderson's legs as well."

Alleging that a police officer used excessive force is a legal conclusion, but "alleging that a police officer used overhand swings to strike the plaintiff is not," Rogers wrote.

The protestors pleaded "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant[s are] liable for the misconduct alleged," she added.

Rogers upheld excessive-force allegations against Officers Chavez, Garcia, King and Obichere. Neither the complaint nor the ruling provides the first names of these individual police officers.

University of California Police Department Officer Samantha Lachler is similarly not entitled to immunity for claims that she purposely hit protestor Hayden Harrison in the groin with the edge of her baton.

"Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, police officers, who were attempting to enforce a no-camping ordinance at 3:30 pm, made a dispersal announcement that protestors could not hear, and then the police officers began hitting protestors that were trapped in a crowd," the ruling states. "The facts and circumstances confronting the officers, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, do not support an inference that Mr. Harrison posed a threat to the safety of officers or others, was disobeying police orders or camping. Rather, the well-plead facts support an inference that Officer Lachler hit a passive individual in the groin because, by linking arms with other protestors, he may have inhibited her progress."

While Lachler challenges the truth of the allegations, she "does not assert that hitting a passive protestor is constitutional or that the law regarding the use of force against passive individuals was sufficiently unclear at the time of the events at issue that Officer Lachler made a reasonable mistake as to what the law requires," Rogers wrote.

The court did toss excessive force claims against UC Police Detective Rick Florendo and UC Police Officer N. Hernandez, noting a lack of specific allegations against them.

Concession from the plaintiffs also led Rogers to dismiss all claims against Alameda County Sheriff Chief Gregory Ahern.

Allegations against university officials, however, were too generalized and unspecific, the court found, tossing all of them with leave to amend.

Lead plaintiff Yvette Felarca and the other plaintiffs are represented by Ronald Cruz of Scheff, Washington & Driver. J. Randall Andrada represents the defendants.

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