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Death Claims Against Police Must Be Amended

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge dismissed excessive-force claims against Bay Area police who arrested a homeless man who later died, but gave his sole surviving relative leave to amend the complaint.

San Leandro police stopped Stefan Anton, 56, on July 21, 2013 for expired registration tags. The officers slammed his head into the ground and choked him, according to the July 20, 2014 lawsuit from his cousin Andrei Petre.

Petre claims Officers Timothy Perry and Warren DeGuzman wrestled his cousin to the ground and hit him and "hit his head on the ground."

Petre, of Romania, says Anton stopped breathing after being put into a "control-hold," also known as a chokehold.

Anton was sent to St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, where he lingered in a coma until Aug. 19, when he died.

"The coroner investigator's report stated that the causes of death were 'cerebral insufficiency,' 'anoxic encephalopathy,' and 'cardiac arrest occurring during physical altercation and physical restraint," according to the complaint. Petre says the autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in Anton's system.

Petre did not say in the lawsuit why Anton was taken out of the vehicle or what led to his arrest, but the defendants' attorney, Gregory Fox, told Courthouse News that Anton tried to run and had a heart condition.

"It's all a little confusing because the gentleman who was arrested, the decedent, does not appear to have any relatives living in the country," Fox said. "And the plaintiff appears to be living in Romania. Petre is Romanian and Anton came to the county several years ago. He was homeless and they were checking [on him] ... he tried to drive off in his vehicle and a struggle ensued. The autopsy showed he had a chronic heart condition and during handcuffing he stopped breathing. They did CPR ... he lived for a month in a coma and then died. He had this chronic heart condition. It was an unfortunate situation."

Petre claims the situation was complicated by San Leandro police, who withheld the incident report as "on hold" or "under investigation," and refused to release the report until he filed a lawsuit.

The city filed a motion to dismiss on Nov. 3, 2015, saying Petre's claims against the officers are barred by the 2-year statute of limitations and that he failed to state a claim.

U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Corley ruled Monday that the lawsuit is not time-barred because the claims in the first amended complaint "relate back to the initial complaint's allegations."

But she dismissed the claims against the officers as not properly pleaded.

"Defendants appear to concede that the FAC states a claim for violation of decedent's Fourth Amendment rights," Corley wrote in the Jan. 4 order. "As currently written, the FAC leaves defendants uncertain as to what underlying constitutional violations are alleged by plaintiff and in what capacity. ... Plaintiff must separately allege Fourth Amendment claims being brought on behalf of the estate and any Fourteenth Amendment claims brought on his own behalf."

Attorney Fox said: "Petre indicated he is a distant cousin living in Romania, but the judge said it is unclear on whose behalf this lawsuit is being brought. The judge wants to know, 'Are you bringing this on behalf of Anton's estate?' and if so, then certain restrictions apply. But if he is bringing this on behalf of a relative, that's something else."

Corley gave leave to amend the complaint and resolve the apparent deficiencies, which includes proper claims against Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli.

"Defendants argued that the claims against Chief Spagnoli are alleged against her in her official capacity and should therefore be dismissed as redundant," Corley wrote. "The plaintiff did not oppose that argument. The court will therefore dismiss the second cause of action. ... If plaintiff wishes to amend to bring suit against Chief Spagnoli in her individual capacity, the amended complaint must specify that she is sued in her individual capacity and must include sufficient facts to render her individual liability plausible."

Corley preserved the claims against the City of San Leandro.

"The FAC adequately pleads an underlying constitutional violation - the Fourth Amendment only, not the Fourteenth - and sufficiently pleads municipal liability through inadequate training, but not ratification or the acts of a policy-maker," the judge wrote. "The court therefore declines to dismiss the second cause of action. Plaintiff may, however, amend the second cause of action to add facts to support his currently inadequate theories of municipal liability."

Peter must file an amended complaint by Jan. 15.

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