Imagine yourself as a 61-year old African-American from Oakland who has worked as a union plumber for 35 years. You read newspapers religiously, and know a few things about civil rights. You live in a rented converted garage in a commercial area of Alameda County.
One afternoon, you get into an argument with an ex-girlfriend in front of a cigarette shop, but you walk away and spend the next few hours in your home watching TV. Hours later, Alameda Sheriff’s Deputies surround your home. They demand you open your door to “speak.” Your ex-girlfriend has claimed you hit her. You tell them that you have done nothing wrong, and ask them to speak to the shopkeeper and get a search warrant if they really think they have a reason to “speak.” Minutes later, instead of a warrant the deputies bring a “breaching tool” along with over ten more deputies. They fail to breach your door (which opens out), but when you relent and open it yourself, you find several deputies pointing guns at you. You get no chance to “speak,” because less than a second after your door swings open, you are grabbed and pulled to the ground by one deputy; another one kicks you in the leg as you hit the ground. Immediately, three other deputies jump on you, while half a dozen others enter your 400 square foot home, without warrants, to conduct a “protective sweep” for other suspects, despite the fact they were told you were in your home alone and unarmed.
As an educated man, you know there is something wrong with what has just happened to you, but it gets worse. As you are being held on the ground, you do not struggle. You simply say, over and over, that you are 61 years old, you did nothing wrong, and the deputies should speak to the shopkeeper. Your words fall on deaf ears. After you are handcuffed, one of the deputies needlessly places you in a “figure four” leg lock, a wrestling move. He applies so much force that your right ankle shatters in three places.
Your fracture is diagnosed promptly, but left untreated for six days until you are released from Santa Rita Jail, without charges.
Four surgeries later, and after two and a half months in Highland Hospital to repair your fractures and fight off hospital infections that almost cost you your right leg, you seek legal help. Two civil rights lawyers reject your case.
What do you do?
Fortunately for Aaron Smith, he contacted the SF-Marin Lawyer Referral and Information Service and was referred to me, a seasoned attorney with Brent, Fiol and Pratt. I smelled something wrong with the way Smith was treated.
The forced entry into Smith’s home was premised on the claim that the victim had a broken nose, elevating the potential crime to a felony, but she had declined medical care at the scene. The incident report included narratives from four deputies, each of whom described Smith as belligerent and actively resisting arrest -something that didn’t fit the slender, 61-year old client. The police response seemed far out of proportion.
Most importantly, my partners and I saw no constitutional basis for the deputies’ conceded efforts to force their way into Smith’s home, rendering any use of force on Smith improper.
I filed suit. On Smith’s behalf, I also filed a formal complaint for excessive force with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, which, under state law, forces the Department to conduct its own investigation into the arrest – the results of which could later be obtained through discovery.
The conclusion of the Sheriff’s investigation was not promising. Based exclusively on the narrative reports prepared by the deputies involved, the department’s investigators concluded that Smith’s excessive force complaints were without merit. The investigators wrote that no video of the arrest existed.
Then something interesting happened. In response to a demand in the civil litigation, the county’s attorneys admitted that a video of the arrest did exist. The attorneys produced the video. From the first viewing it was clear that Smith had been telling the truth. He did not resist arrest. His leg fracture was totally unnecessary.
This cast the Sheriff Department’s investigation in a very negative light. It appeared the department cared nothing about its statutory duty to investigate civilian complaints.
Further evidence supported that conclusion. In depositions, I asked each deputy at the scene if he or she had been interviewed for the excessive force investigation: none of them had. I asked the department for a list of all excessive force complaints over a five-year period: there were 118. I asked how many of those complaints resulted in reprimands or other negative personnel actions for the deputies involved: the answer was zero.
Not surprisingly, the county came to the settlement table willingly. In a deal brokered by United States Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler, the county agreed to resolve over $400,000 in hospital liens and pay Smith $900,000 in cash for his damages.
But I am not done. I intend to spread Smith’s story far and wide. Further litigation against Alameda may be in the cards. For Smith, the settlement represents a new home for him and his fiance – a sweetheart from his youth and the mother of his grown son.
Some stories have happy endings.
About the author
David L. Fiol of Brent, Fiol & Pratt is a Harvard-educated attorney with a diverse injury practice that spans malpractice, aviation accidents, car accidents, and brain injury cases.