The family of Ricardo Abrahams has filed suit against the City of Woodland, the Police Officers involved in the incident, and Taser International. Mr. Abrahams died in May of 2008 following an incident where he was shot multiple times with “Taser” electrical guns, hit with metal batons, and the police eventually tackled him to the ground.
The Yolo County Coroner’s office ruled Abrahams did not die from the Tasers, but but rather from positional asphyxiation, which happened when police held him down on the ground. The Attorney General’s Office cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing. Lawyers representing Rosemary and Cecil Abrahams of Davis allege:
“On the morning of May 28, 2008, police officers from the Woodland Police Department killed Ricardo during an altercation in which the officers beat him with metal batons, shot him multiple times with “Taser” electrical guns, and tackled him to the ground. The brutalization by the officers, combined with a dangerous defect in the Taser guns used, caused Ricardo’s death.”
According to their account, on May 18, 2008, Ricardo Abrahams left the Safe Harbor facility. Staff had become concerned about his condition and called the police to ask them to check on Ricardo.
“One or more officers at the scene decided to take Ricardo into custody, even though he had done nothing illegal and was not a danger to himself or others. Ricardo was not intoxicated and was not under the influence of any illegal substances. Police officers simply did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to seize Ricardo.
Police officers began to beat Ricardo’s arms and legs with their batons. Police officers also fired at Ricardo using Taser electrical guns that were manufactured, distributed, marketed, and/or sold by TASER INTERNATIONAL, INC. Ricardo ran away from the officers to avoid their unlawful use of force against him. The officers chased Ricardo and shot him again with Taser guns. Ricardo fell to the ground and police officers swarmed on top of him. The weight of all the officers on Ricardo made it difficult for him to breathe. Shortly thereafter, the officers realized that Ricardo was not breathing. One or more officers called for an ambulance to transport Ricardo to the hospital. Ricardo was taken to Woodland Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead at approximately 10: 15 a.m. Ricardo’s death occurred after unlawful, illegal, and unconstitutional force was used against him by the officers.”
The lawyers allege that the police officers “needlessly escalated their encounter with decedent into a confrontation, and intentionally and recklessly commenced the use of force and violence without justification.”
The plaintiffs also criticize policies, customs, and practices of the Woodland Police Department.
(a) directing or encouraging police officers to inflict unreasonable and excessive force on persons and to seize persons without reasonable suspicion or probable cause,
(b) hiring, retaining, and assigning officers with a known propensity for using unreasonable and excessive force and for seizing persons without reasonable suspicion or probable cause,
(c) failing to adequately train, supervise, warn, and discipline officers against the use of unreasonable and excessive force and against the seizure of persons without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, particularly with respect to persons who have committed no crime, but suffer from a health/medical condition, mental stress, mental deficiency, or mental illness,
(d) failing to investigate and impose discipline upon officers who use unreasonable and excessive force, or seize persons without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, or for other misconduct, thereby condoning and encouraging officers to believe that they can violate the constitutional and statutory rights of persons with impunity and that such misconduct will not affect their eligibility for continued employment, compensation, promotion, and other employment benefits,
(e) failing to adequately train, supervise, warn, and discipline officers regarding the dangers of Taser guns, particularly the risks to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems of persons who may have pre-existing health and/or medical and/or mental conditions, and who are shocked repeatedly, within a short period of time, and are then subjected to impaired breathing by the weight of an officer or officers.
The complaint alleges eleven causes of action.
The first is wrongful death in that the “decedent’s death was directly and proximately caused by the illegal, wrongful, and neglectful conduct of the Defendants.”
The second is violation of substantive due process.
“Defendants’ misconduct and policies, customs, and practices alleged herein amounted to deliberate indifference to, and/or reckless disregard for, Plaintiffs’ fundamental liberty interest in, and substantive due process right to, the companionship and society of their child, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”
The third is excessive force.
“Defendants’ misconduct alleged herein violated decedent’ right to be free from the unreasonable and excessive use of force as guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”
The fourth is false arrest.
“Defendants’ misconduct alleged herein violated Plaintiffs’ right to be free from unreasonable seizure as guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”
The fifth is municipal liability that hits on the city of Woodland’s polices, customs and practices. Recall one of the defenses is that they were following procedure as laid forth by the Woodland Police Department. This cause of action would get at that defense claim.
The sixth cause of action is battery stemming from the physical confrontation that the plaintiffs allege was improper.
“The police officers beat, shot, and tackled decedent, without his consent, with the intent to cause harmful and offensive contact. Decedent was harmed and/or was offended by such contact. This conduct occurred prior to decedent’s death.”
The seventh cause of action is interference with civil rights, this is related to the second cause of action.
“Defendants, by intimidation, violence, threat of violence, and/or coercion, intentionally interfered with or attempted to interfere with the right of decedent to be secure against unreasonable seizures, pursuant to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 13 of the California Constitution, and the right to due process, pursuant to Article I, Section 7 of the California Constitution. This conduct occurred prior to decedent’s death.”
The eight cause of action is negligent hiring and supervision. The ninth cause of action is negligence.
Only the tenth and eleventh causes of action is directed against Taser International–strict products liability and products liability–negligence.
According to the allegations:
“TASER INTERNATIONAL, INC. knew that its Taser guns had manufacturing and/or design defects that presented the risk of causing personal injury and death, particularly against persons experiencing mental stress, mental illness, health issues, and/or medical conditions.
Furthermore, TASER INTERNATIONAL, INC. knew that its Taser guns were defective in that they were not accompanied by adequate instructions and/or warnings regarding the correct use of the guns, and/or the known and/or scientifically knowable potential risks or side-effects involved in using the guns in a foreseeable manner, including, but not limited to, the risks to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems of persons who may have pre-existing health and/or medical and/or mental conditions, and who are shocked repeatedly, within a short period of time, and are then subjected to impaired breathing by the weight of an officer or officers.”
There have been no official responses to this point from the defendants.
One point that needs clarification because it arose in the Woodland Daily Democrat’s initial story and also was mentioned on Matt Rexroad’s blog.
The Daily Democrat wrote:
“The officers — John Perez, Omar Flores, Anthony Cucchi and Amanda Waldeck — were cleared of any wrongdoing by the state Attorney General’s Office.”
Mr. Rexroad who argued that the family should not receive one cent of taxpayer money said:
“The Woodland Police officers were cleared.”
The more accurate statement is that the officers were cleared by the Attorney General’s Office of CRIMINAL CONDUCT.
Deputy Attorney General Davis Lowe wrote:
“We find no criminal conduct on the part of any of the involved officers…”
“This is not a surprising finding and based on what little we know of the case, an accurate finding. The fact of the matter is, a criminal finding would have had to have shown that the police officers intended to do harm to this individual. That is a very high standard to meet and one that is not in agreement with the known facts of the incident.
In other words, there is no reason to have suspected that the officers acted in a malicious fashion. That would be the difference between an incident like Rodney King where the police officers were clearly using excessive force in an intentional and malicious matter. However, even in the King case there was no criminal conviction–rightly or wrongly. The King case in that regard represents the norm.
But that is not the end of the story. Criminal conduct is only a small amount of this case. The next question will be whether the police are civilly liable for Mr. Abraham’s death. That is a much lower standard and one that it does not appear from media accounts that the AG’s office looked into.”
At that time, Attorney Johnny L. Griffin from Sacramento claimed that the state’s ruling was based on inaccurate information submitted by the Woodland Police Department to the Attorney General’s office.
“If the material submitted by the Police Department is incomplete and/or inaccurate, the attorney general’s findings will likewise be flawed… Bottom line, the attorney general’s finding can only be as trustworthy as the information provided by the Police Department.”
Bottom line here is that no judgment should be passed yet either way. The AG’s office found no criminal conduct but that is not the end of the story. This civil trial will determine civil liability. The officers have not been cleared in this venue yet. We shall let the process play out and see what comes out in the trial.
—David M. Greenwald reporting