SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge ruled Friday that Berkeley police officers did not violate the civil rights of Kayla Moore, a transgender woman with schizophrenia who died while being arrested in 2013.
"Every loss of life hurts, but not every loss of life violates the Fourth Amendment," U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer wrote. As hard as that may be to accept, it is the law."
Moore's father Arthur claimed police restrained his 41-year-old daughter to death in her Berkeley apartment.
Official reports say Kayla died from a combination of a rare heart condition, complications from heavy methamphetamine use and morbid obesity, exacerbated by her thrashing around.
Her father's attorney Adante Pointer said her death was caused by lack of oxygen stemming from the collective weight of six police officers trying to restrain her with handcuffs.
Kayla Moore weighed 347 pounds.
"There is nothing that told these officers they should be doing anything differently than they did," Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault argued at a September hearing. "She was yelling things, but she never said, 'I can't breathe.' They didn't think they were dealing with a subject that couldn't breathe."
Named as defendants were Officers Gwendolyn Brown, Kenneth Tu, Brandon Smith, Brian Mathis, Timothy Gardner, Nikos Kastmiler, Amber Philips and Benjamin Cardoza.
Brown and Tu initially responded to a call from Kayla's friend John Hayes, who said Kayla had kicked them out of their shared apartment. He requested mental health assistance for Kayla, who he said was suffering from a psychotic break.
The officers found Kayla acting erratically. They ran her name and Hayes' name for warrants, and ended up arresting both of them. Brown radioed for backup when Kayla tried to resist, and the other officers were soon on the scene.
During the ensuing altercation, when officers tried to restrain her with handcuffs and by putting pressure on her limbs and back, she struggled to breathe, according to her father's lawsuit.
He also said that when the officers realized Kayla had lost consciousness, they removed her handcuffs, sat her up and inexpertly applied CPR, but it was too late. She had lost consciousness for good.
Breyer found that a question remains whether the officers arrested Kayla based on her outstanding warrant or her psychiatric condition, and if they did so, failed to accommodate her disability.
"The officers may have decided to arrest Moore due to her mental condition, outstanding warrant, or interference with law enforcement in the course of their duties," Breyer wrote. "If the latter, a reasonable jury could find that the Moore's apparent resistance stemmed from her mental condition, not a desire to obstruct the officers. That, as well as what motivated the arrest, remain disputed material facts."
But he found that the officers had probable cause to arrest Kayla and were not wrong to restrain her, as they could not have known at the time whether Kayla was continuing to resist, or actually struggling for air.
"The moment the officers tried to arrest her, Moore yanked two officers to the floor, kicked, and screamed. So even if Moore started bucking for air at some point, nothing in the record suggests how the officers could have discerned when thrashing against arrest became bucking for air," Breyer wrote. "And though Moore's weight suggested a higher risk of health problems, the officers had little choice but to restrain her once the struggle started. That being so, the force used — though fatal when combined with an enlarged heart — was reasonable based on what the officers could know at the time."
Neither Pointer nor Bourgault responded to email requests for comment Friday.
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