Protesters Weren’t Roughed Up, Judge Rules

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge has cleared three Sonoma County sheriff’s officers of claims that they used excessive force against several people who protested the killing of their friend by a fellow officer.
     U.S. District Judge William Orrick granted a motion for summary judgment by the officers and Sonoma County on claims they violated the constitutional rights of Jose Luis Godoy and three minors. The individuals claimed that the officers pointed a gun at them and jammed their knees into their backs during a 2014 arrest in which Godoy was erroneously identified as having threatened a motorist with a firearm.
     Orrick also granted summary judgment to the defendants on municipal liability, battery, negligence and Bane Act claims.
     “The undisputed facts establish that defendants detained plaintiffs as a result of a 911 call unrelated to the protests and did not use unreasonable force during the incident,” Orrick said in his ruling, issued Friday.
     Several defendants have also agreed to a settlement, and Orrick dismissed the suit with prejudice in relation to them in a separate order issued late on Friday. Court filings show that California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Ball agreed to settle with the plaintiffs in June, and the city of Santa Rosa and eight Santa Rosa police officers agreed to settle in February.
     The Santa Rosa Police Department and California Highway Patrol have agreed to waive costs in exchange for dismissal, according to Bonnie Freeman, counsel for the county and its deputies.
     Sheriff’s officers Dylan Fong and Matthew Lupton, Sgt. Dave Pedersen and the county never offered to settle, Freeman said. She says she is not aware of any defendants making payment to the plaintiffs.
     Neither plaintiffs’ attorney Arnoldo Casillas nor California State Attorney General attorney Amy Lo, who represents Ball, could be reached for comment on Monday.
     The case will be reinstated isn’t completed within 90 days, according to Orrick’s order. U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler is overseeing the settlement proceedings.
     The plaintiffs had accused the three officers of violating their First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights by unlawfully arresting them and using excessive force during a protest of the fatal shooting of their friend by another sheriff’s officer.
     They said Lupton continued to point his gun at Godoy even after he had been handcuffed, and that the officers restrained Godoy and one of the minors with their knees. Another minor’s hand was pulled in the wrong direction, they claimed.
     The claims stem from a 2014 incident in which a motorist reported that a Hispanic male pointed a gun at him from a moving black Chevy Suburban. The motorist identified Godoy in a photo lineup, and Godoy also had a black Chevy Suburban with a license plate number similar to the one the motorist had observed.
     Later, Fong spotted Godoy’s Suburban parked on the wrong side of the street and — after observing him attempt to set off the vehicle’s alarm — ordered Godoy and the minors to “get on the fucking ground,” according to the ruling. The officers and CHP Officer Ball held Godoy and the other plaintiffs on the ground until backup arrived.
     Addressing the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claim, Orrick held that the officers hadn’t used excessive force. Using a knee to pin someone down during an arrest is normal and the officers hadn’t inflicted any injuries on the plaintiffs by using that tactic, the judge said.
     Orrick called Godoy’s testimony that Lupton continued to point his gun at him even after he was handcuffed “inconclusive at best.” Godoy had testified that he couldn’t remember whether he saw a gun pointed at him after he was ordered onto the ground or if he saw Lupton again after Lupton first pointed his gun at him, and the testimony of the other plaintiffs was also ambiguous, Orrick said.
     The judge also blasted the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim that the officers had punished them for protesting their friends’ shooting, saying the officers had legitimately stopped them and hadn’t used excessive force during the arrest.
     “The officers did not have the luxury of observing the plaintiffs for a significant period of time to see if they were unarmed before searching them,” Orrick said. “Dangerous or exigent circumstances were undeniably present.”
     Finally, Orrick threw out the municipal liability claim, finding they had failed to show that the county had a policy of targeting protestors.
     “None of the evidence demonstrates a custom of encouraging the surveillance of protesters, facilitating a ‘code of silence’ among the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to hide the use of excessive force, or maintaining grossly inadequate handcuffing procedures,” Orrick said.
     The county had claimed that a single incident couldn’t establish municipal liability.

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