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Park Ranger Groping Suit Will Proceed

SACRAMENTO (CN) - A visitor to Yosemite National Park can pursue a malicious prosecution claim against three park rangers who allegedly groped her breasts and crotch during an unwarranted search, a federal judge ruled.

Michelle Mazzetti was in a park campground with friends when Yosemite park rangers approached them to address complaints about a vehicle whose male occupants had been acting disrespectfully and driving too quickly through the campground, according to Mazzetti's complaint.

The rangers - including defendants Christopher Bellino, Brendan Bonner and David Sanchez - rounded up Mazzetti and her friends at a picnic table and questioned them.

Mazzetti says Bellino and Sanchez told them they were not free to leave and threatened to use handcuffs. After a few minutes, one of the male members of the group admitted that he had been driving the vehicle.

Mazzetti told the rangers that she had just walked up from the river, had not been in the vehicle, and did not want to be part of the investigation. The rangers ordered her to sit down, then asked for her identification. When Mazzetti got up to retrieve her identification, Bellino and Sanchez grabbed her, she says.

Mazzetti claims Bellino threatened her with a Taser, and that the rangers continued to physically and verbally threaten her, though they had no reason to believe she had been involved in any criminal activity.

An audio-video recording shows that after Bellino threatened Mazzetti with a Taser, he told Bonner that Mazzetti was being "uncooperative," but that she had begun being cooperative. However, Bellino and Bonner still agreed to arrest Mazzetti and take her to jail, the complaint states.

The rangers walked Mazzetti - who was wearing shorts, a bathing suit top, and a loose fitting T-shirt with its sleeves cut off -to one of their vehicles, where they handcuffed her, she says.

Ranger Michael Hastings was sent to watch the other members of Mazzetti's group at the campsite, while the other rangers decided to search Mazzetti. Although Bonner stated that a female ranger would be on duty soon, he and Bellino moved Mazzetti to the other side of the Ranger's video, out of the view of her friends, to search her, according to the complaint.

The two rangers allegedly taunted and touched Mazzetti and ran their hands through her hair. Bellino told Mazzetti he would have to search her breasts, at which point Mazzetti was placed in a stress hold and Bellino and Bonner groped her, Mazzetti says.

Mazzetti says she screamed at them to stop and that they were hurting her. Bellino told Mazzetti he had to search her groin area and the rangers forced her to the ground, the complaint states.

The video shows Bellino and Bonner grabbing Mazzetti's bare knees and prying her legs apart so that they could touch her groin, while Mazzetti screamed for them to stop, according to the complaint.

The two rangers removed Mazzetti's shoes and put her in the back of the ranger vehicle.

Mazzetti claims that Bellino, Bonner and Sanchez filed false reports, failed to provide exculpatory information and failed to identify witnesses who could support her version of events.

Mazzetti was charged and prosecuted for interference, failing to obey a lawful order, disorderly conduct and unreasonable noise. But a magistrate judge ruled that the rangers had no reason to stop Mazzetti and that she had been illegally arrested.

The judge acquitted Mazzetti of all charges except for unreasonable noise, based on Mazzetti's continued screaming after she had been placed in the rangers' vehicle. The U.S. attorney dismissed that charge on appeal.

The rangers claimed that Mazzetti's claim of malicious prosecution should be dismissed because it faults the rangers for not including a verbatim transcript of statements and actions that were recorded in videos, which were admitted in the criminal trials as joint exhibits.

The rangers' report disclosed the videos as evidence and no information was actually withheld from Mazzetti or the prosecutor, the rangers said.

Furthermore, they argued that people who participate in an investigation or file a report are generally precluded from liability for malicious prosecution claims under the presumption of prosecutorial independence.

But U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii didn't buy it.

"Despite the reference to the video in the rangers' reports, and the content of the video itself, the court cannot find that dismissal is appropriate at this time. The presumption may be rebutted in several ways, including omissions of key facts, improper pressure/influence by an officer, and misleading reports," Ishii wrote in the Nov. 5 ruling.

"Here, the events surrounding the prosecutor's decision to bring charges are entirely unknown. There is no indication of when the prosecutor saw the video, what contact the Rangers had with the prosecutor, what influence or role they had with respect to the prosecutor's decisions, what the prosecutor reviewed in deciding to pursue charges, which portions of the reports (if any) the prosecutor relied upon, or why the prosecutor decided to press charges at all."

Ishii also pointed out that not all parts of the video are clear, as faces are not always visible and some of the comments made by Mazzetti's group cannot be clearly heard. Nor does the video explain that the driver in the speeding vehicle was male and that the passenger was also male.

Nor does the video make clear whether Mazzetti kicked at the rangers before they told her that they were going to search her breasts.

"The rangers are attempting to obtain a dismissal based on what amounts to a defense. The defense is rebuttable, however, and there has not been adequate discovery surrounding the prosecutor's decision to prosecute. Without the benefit of discovery on this issue, the court will not dismiss the malicious prosecution claim at this time," Ishii wrote.

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