Calif. School District Settles Police Misconduct Suit

Jan. 22, 2013
Barely four months after five men filed a lawsuit accusing Twin Rivers Unified School District police officers of brutality and false arrest, the district has paid $650,000 to settle the matter.

Barely four months after five men filed a lawsuit accusing Twin Rivers Unified School District police officers of brutality and false arrest, the district has paid $650,000 to settle the matter.

In their suit, the plaintiffs claimed they were arrested on Sept. 17, 2010, in North Highlands for no reason and taken to the district police station, where one officer allegedly choked three of them. They were all eventually jailed, but the District Attorney's Office declined to file any charges against them.

The suit also accused the district's top managers of fostering a toxic climate within its police force, which has drawn widespread community criticism for its enforcement tactics and became the focus of a grand jury investigation.

The district did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

As part of the settlement, the arrests of the five men have been expunged from law enforcement data banks.

Former Officer Branche Smith, who was accused in the suit of choking three of the five young men who sued, settled separately and paid an additional sum to the plaintiffs. Since Smith had left the district before the settlement, his agreement is between private parties and not public by law.

His lawyer refused Friday to discuss its terms, including how much his client paid. "Mr. Smith's is a separate settlement and is confidential," said attorney William Briggs.

Smith, 38, is facing criminal misdemeanor charges of assault on detainees in connection with the incident. A trial is scheduled for March 12.

The lawsuit was built around the arrest and alleged police abuse of the five men almost 2 1/2 years ago.

Andrew Latshaw, then 21, was booked on suspicion of misdemeanor interfering with an officer, held for a day in the downtown jail and released. But the others -- Latshaw's half-brothers Demonte Kelly, then 18, and Jovon Kelly, then 19; Austin Westfall, then 20, and Andres Gutierrez, then 18, who is a cousin of Latshaw and the Kelly brothers -- were held four days after six-figure bail amounts were set because they were booked "on a slew of felony charges," the suit stated.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on the Friday of the arrests, according to the suit, Westfall, Gutierrez and the Kelly brothers were seated in a car parked in front of the North Highlands home where Latshaw, the Kelly brothers, and others lived. Officer Taras Chernyy drove by in a police cruiser, made a U-turn and stopped behind the car.

The officer later said he stopped because he "felt" the car's occupants "looking at me" and saw one of them "slouched down." He also said he thought they might be truants, despite the fact there was no school because teachers had non-class duties. It turned out that all five men were through with high school and none of them had ever attended a Twin Rivers school.

Jovon Kelly claimed Chernyy pulled out his baton, then drew his firearm for no apparent reason and put it in Kelly's face.

Chernyy then called for reinforcements and, with lights on and sirens wailing, cars from Twin Rivers and Sacramento police departments and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department rolled onto the street and officers jumped out with guns drawn.

Latshaw, who had been sleeping in the house, was awakened by all the commotion, stepped out the front door and was arrested at gunpoint, the suit stated.

James Anwyl, an attorney for all the defendants except Smith, also did not return a call Friday seeking comment. But, according to the written plea agreement, the defendants "deny that they engaged in any unlawful conduct, or that they are responsible for any injuries or damages claimed by plaintiffs."

In addition to Smith and Chernyy, Officers Anthony Ruiz and Emily Kelly, who were at the scenes of the arrests or Smith's purported attack on the prisoners, were also named as defendants.

The suit alleged that the conduct of the officers grew out of a "failure to control subordinates with a history of misbehavior and failure to correct unconstitutional practices or conditions" on the part of several district officials. They include Frank Porter, former Twin Rivers superintendent; Christopher Breck, Twin Rivers police chief at the time who later was under investigation on misconduct allegations; Ziggy Robeson, who was Porter's deputy, and Chue Lor, a sergeant in the Police Department at the time. After more than a year on paid administrative leave, Breck left the district last month, resigning in exchange for a $36,500 buyout.

Even though the district itself was not named as a defendant, in accord with California law, it indemnified the defendants and agreed to pay the $650,000 out of its self-insurance funds, which are part of a pool financed and shared by several school districts. The district also paid the defense lawyers out of the funds.

The suit was filed Sept. 13 by attorney Stewart Katz. At first it appeared the matter was going to go the usual route of a hard-fought action.

Summons were served, there was a squabble over whether some defendants had been served, and a series of motions to dismiss were filed by defendants.

The defendants "expressed interest in settling right away, but their actions spoke otherwise," Katz said Monday. "We had a respected retired judge lined up to mediate, but (defense attorney) Anwyl blew that up."

Less than 60 days after the suit was filed, things took an abrupt turn when Nancy Sheehan, a highly regarded civil rights defense lawyer, joined Anwyl.

She asked U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez for an early settlement conference and it was scheduled Dec. 18, with U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall J. Newman presiding.

Only Sheehan attended the conference on behalf of all defendants except Smith, who was represented by Briggs. An agreement was reached that day.

"She is obviously a very good lawyer and knows when a case is defensible and when it's not," Katz said.

Sheehan was out of the state and unavailable for comment.

Copyright 2013 - The Sacramento Bee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!