SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - Police officers trying to break up a house party will face excessive force claims brought by two people caught in the melee, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Miguel Rodriguez and Charisse Fernandez sued the city of Modesto, Calif., its police department and several of its officers in connection with the 2009 incident at the home of nonparty Adrian Alizaga, who was celebrating his birthday.
Responding to neighbor complaints, Modesto Police officers detained Alizaga and the crowd of partygoers - including Rodriguez and Fernandez - exited the house. The officers told the group to get back inside, a command both Rodriguez and Fernandez admit they ignored.
One officer then grabbed Rodriguez, a second tasered him, a third deployed his K-9 and a fourth struck the man repeatedly with a baton. Rodriguez maintains he was unarmed and never physically resisted the officers, who arrested him for obstruction.
Once officers had handcuffed Rodriguez, yet another member of the department "put a shotgun to Rodriguez's back and banged his head against the roof of a patrol car," according to Rodriguez and Fernandez's complaint.
"Rodriguez told him that he had an injured leg and asked him to be careful with it. The officer then deliberately attempted to injure Rodriguez by bending his bad leg backward. This caused Rodriguez pain. He was terrified and pleaded for mercy. He screamed, 'What are you doing to me? I have a daughter!' The officer responded by yelling, 'Fuck your daughter, you piece of shit!' The officer then threw Rodriguez into the back of the patrol car, injuring his bad leg in the process and causing him to cry out in pain," the complaint states.
The officers also threw Fernandez to the ground and deployed the K-9 unit on her as well.
"Defendant officers then held a police dog close to her head," the complaint states. "The dog was straining at the leash and lunging and barking aggressively at Fernandez, causing her to scream loudly in terror for her life. While she was screaming and lying facedown on the lawn in handcuffs, another officer approached her from behind and struck her about the legs several times with his club."
Police also charged Fernandez with obstruction, and both eventually pleaded no contest to the charges. They sued in 2010.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill dismissed the pair's action entirely, finding that their federal claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey - holding that a civil rights challenge of the arrest necessarily challenges their no-contest convictions as well.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed O'Neill's decision earlier this year, finding that the pair could argue that excessive force had been used after officers had successfully detained them and still comply with Heck.
On remand, the city of Modesto and its police department again asked the court to dismiss for failure to state a claim. And while O'Neill agreed that the pair failed to make adequate allegations against some of the officers involved, the case against others should move forward.
And in the case of Sgt. Jon Buehler - who had a different sort of brush with fame when he played himself in the television melodrama about murderer and Modesto native Scott Peterson - the Heck precedent does not limit Fernandez to alleging brutality only after arrest.
"Fernandez admits she failed to comply with the officer's lawful order to 'move back,' O'Neill wrote. "This 'resisting, delaying or obstructing' of the officer's lawful order does not lose its character as a violation of the law if that officer (or another) used excessive force to arrest Fernandez for failing to comply with the order. To hold otherwise would mean that an officer could use unlimited force in the course of subduing an individual for failure to comply with a lawful order."
The judge said that Fernandez also sufficiently beefed up her complaint against another officer, Kalani Souza, who held the snarling K-9 next to her head.
"The allegations in the second amended complaint are more detailed and suggest and immediate and serious threat to Fernandez's person," O'Neill wrote. "For purposes of a motion to dismiss, this is sufficient. Whether this claim would survive a motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds is a question for another day, as the issue of qualified immunity has not yet been raised."
While the plaintiffs failed to allege any of the necessary components of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act - threats made on the basis of political affiliation, labor dispute, sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status or sexual orientation - they may have a claim for excessive force within other portions of state civil rights law.
"A plaintiff bringing a Bane Act excessive force need not allege a showing of coercion independent from the coercion inherent in the use of force," O'Neill wrote.
As to Rodriguez, the judge applied the same line of thinking he used to address Fernandez's claims.
"As was the case with Fernandez, Rodriguez entered a nolo contendere plea to an obstruction charge. The record does not indicate that his plea was to any particular factual conduct. Again as was the case with Fernandez, Rodriguez alleges that he merely failed to comply with a lawful police order to 'move back' and was then thrown to the ground and arrested. He was then subjected to additional force even though he did not resist," O'Neill concluded.