SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — It was a normal fall morning for Jose Villalobos and like any good Catholic, he wanted to cap his weekend with Sunday mass. Villalobos, a husband and father, was recovering from shoulder surgery and brought his family to a local church to “pray and relax.”
But on that breezy San Francisco Bay Area November day, the church was not only a place of worship but the site of a law enforcement stakeout.
After winding up the sidewalk to the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, Villalobos and the congregation entered under the surveillance of plainclothes City of Vallejo police officers looking for a “sexual predator” they suspected was targeting minors.
This wasn’t Villalobos’ first Catholic mass, so prior to claiming a pew, he beelined for the bathroom. Before he could even glimpse the urinal, two men snatched Villalobos and yanked his arms behind his back.
“What’s going on? I’m in church,” Villalobos cried, still in the lobby. “I don’t have any money!”
Blind in one eye, Villalobos was caught by surprise and thought he was being robbed from behind. As he turned to face his apparent attackers, Villalobos remembers being hit in the face, wrestled to the church floor and hauled away from his family. Only after placing Villalobos in the back of a patrol car did the undercover officers realize they had nabbed the wrong guy.
On Wednesday, a federal judge gave Villalobos’ excessive force lawsuit a fighting chance and dashed Vallejo’s attempt to squash the peculiar case of mistaken identity.
“Because officers continued to exert that force after plaintiff allegedly saw [nonuniformed men], cried that he had no money and informed the officers of his injured shoulder, the allegations in the complaint plausibly allege the officers intended to exert that unreasonable force or at least acted with a reckless disregard for plaintiff’s fourth amendment right to be free from excessive force,” U.S. District Judge William Shubb said in his order.
Villalobos sued the city in December 2019, claiming excessive force, battery and negligence. He didn’t file for wrongful arrest but is asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
In its dismissal motion, the city claimed Villalobos fit a suspect description and that he entered the church alone. When officers tried to detain Villalobos, they claimed he smelled of booze and “actively resisted” before being arrested for public intoxication and obstruction. The city’s motion also claims the officers identified themselves as police and just asked to talk with Villalobos.
But in the early stages of the litigation, Judge Shubb says he’s unconvinced and bound to make all “inferences in favor of plaintiff.”
“Because the complaint alleges no other action by plaintiff, and because the court may infer that plaintiff’s movement was limited by both his partial blindness and his shoulder injury, the officers’ response was plausibly ‘more than necessary under the circumstances’ and therefore unreasonable,” the four-page ruling states.
The Vallejo City attorney assigned to the case filed in the Eastern District of California didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Plaintiff’s attorney Thomas Seabaugh argued the city’s claims that officers were looking for a “sexual predator” and that Villalobos smelled of alcohol were outside the pleadings.
“It is significant that the city does not appear to deny the basic allegation in the complaint — that the police grabbed the wrong person,” Seabaugh noted in his opposition filing. “Even on the city’s version of events, plaintiff was not the alleged ‘sexual predator’ that the police were looking for, but an innocent third party.”