Seven Years Later: Buzayan Case Ends with a Whimper

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Justice-for-halemaIn June of 2005, a witness reported to the Davis Police Department what they believed to be a hit and run accident in the parking lot of Safeway in South Davis.  The witness did not report seeing contact between the two vehicles, but noticed some damage to the car as the family’s SUV pulled away.

Investigating a misdemeanor crime, Davis Police Officer Pheng Ly made the fateful decision to arrest the 16-year-old high school student Halema Buzayan at 10 pm at night, despite the family’s request that they bring her to the police station for questioning the next morning.

While the details of the case would surface over the course of the next year, the fallout was drastic.  After a long and drawn-out public period of outcry on both sides of the issue, the police chief at the time resigned to take a similar position in Antioch and the Davis City Council shut down the Human Relations Commission.

Now, seven years after a lawsuit was filed and eight years after the incident, the family has made the decision to walk away from their lawsuit filed in federal court, without any compensation or settlement.

Jamal Buzayan, the father of Ms. Buzayan, told the Vanguard that the lawsuit was never about the money for the family and always about justice.  He turned down several settlement offers in the past because they contained no admission of wrongdoing or an apology.

In addition, his focuses changed two years ago.  That was the day when he received a call from his brother in Libya, a brother he had not spoken to in 37 years.  It was at the beginning of the Libyan uprising and, when Mr. Buzayan went there, he found his country torn apart, with children orphaned and missing limbs.

The result of his visit was that Mr. Buzayan would go back to his country six times in the two years helping to set up a foundation with the aid of other relief organizations, to assist in providing medical care to the children victims of the uprising.

The costs of pursuing the case, which Mr. Buzayan estimated at more than $500,000, were prohibitive.

Defense attorney John Whitesides told the Sacramento Bee in their Tuesday article that there simply was not much left of the suit.

Judge Morrison England had thrown out portions of the suit previously, including the suit against the Davis Enterprise and its employees.  He later struck down the defamation allegations against the city of Davis.

Attorney Whitney Leigh told the Vanguard this morning, “I’m really glad that the family is doing so well.”

“Obviously we would like to pursue the litigation but this is a long process,” he said.  “This was something that we thought was important to pursue but we think that there are things more important.  I think they made a reasonable decision given the importance of what they’re doing right now.”

He also took some issue with claims that the suit was in trouble.

Halema

“The case clearly had merit and that’s why the 9th Circuit expressly said that the key issue, which is whether or not it’s okay to invade a home at night for the purposes of arresting a minor, would continue, which was always the key case,” he said.  That was a key part of the case and the part that they expected to win.

Ms. Buzayan was originally charged with the misdemeanor.  However, those charges were dismissed by Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner when he ruled that the family had already paid compensation for the damages.

Defense investigators had cast doubt on whether the collision actually occurred, noting the damage did not seem to line up.  A report by Consulting Mechanical Engineer Albert Ferrari found that there were inconsistencies in the damage to the two vehicles.

“He concluded that the damage to the Toyota did not match damage sustained by the Mazda, opining that the areas of bumper and right front damage to each vehicle are inconsistent both with respect to ‘location, elevation, severity, size, shape and transferred paint,'” the suit alleged.

As Judge England noted in an earlier opinion, “Given these opinions, the reasonableness of Officer Ly’s opinion that a collision had taken place between the two vehicles is brought into question, particularly given the fact that the witness had not seen any actual contact between the Mazda and Toyota.”

He also questioned the nature of the lineup presented to the two witnesses. “Plaintiffs point to defects in the composition of the lineup given the sharp contrast between Halema’s smiling demeanor and the demeanor of the other included individuals. Moreover, even given that discrepancy, Plaintiffs correctly point out that only one of the two witnesses who observed the driver of the Highlander in the Safeway parking lot (Marc Rowe) were able to affirmatively identify Halema Buzayan as the driver.”

Officer Pheng Ly, in a recording played by KGO reporter Dan Noyse, said: “The subject kinda has a smile on her face when she’s telling me all this. I think she knows more than what she’s saying.” Then, the officer takes note of Najat’s traditional head scarf. Officer Pheng Ly: “The interesting thing I noticed about the mom is that she wears something over her head and the daughter doesn’t and the witnesses didn’t mention anything about that, think they would have mentioned that to me. So, it’s probable the daughter was driving the car.”

Mr. Noyse reported, “Ly never bothers to ask Najat about her scarf – if he had, he would have found out that both the mother and her daughter, Halema, wear them sometimes. Still, the officer has the two witnesses check a photo lineup with Halema’s picture. One identifies her as the driver, the other picks someone else. Davis Police do not take what would seem to be the obvious next step.”

Whitney Leigh, Buzayans’ attorney in a 2006 interview, said, “They never conducted any lineup that included a photograph of the mother which is standard police procedure and something that really surprised me in this case.”

According to Mr. Noyse’s account, Officer Ly “asks Jamal to see his daughter, Halema, the 16-year-old honor student, but she’s asleep. He offers to bring her to the station in the morning, but Ly insists. Halema comes down the stairs and gets the shock of her life.”

Officer Pheng Ly is heard saying on the recording released to the TV station: “Well, based on my investigation, okay, I believe that you were driving the car, okay?”

Halema Buzayan responds “Are you serious?”

Officer Pheng Ly: “So, I am placing you under arrest, okay?”

Mr. Noyse continues, “Halema asks to change out of her pajamas, but Officer Ly insists she just throw on socks and shoes. Her father stands by helplessly.”

Jamal Buzayan said, “That was the most humiliating experience I had in my life. And, you know you’re just hopeless and you don’t even know what’s going to happen.”

“The officer drives Halema to the police station, interrogates her, and books her. He tells the girl again and again to just tell the truth, even while fingerprinting her,” Dan Noyse continues.

Halema Buzayan in the interview describes, “He takes my fingerprints and every time he pushes down, he pushes down really hard, and he tells me, ‘Tell the truth, tell the truth, that’s all you have to do,’ and he just seems so angry with me.”

In addition to the actual arrest, there are two other critical issues.  The first is whether Ms. Buzayan had requested an attorney which was ignored by Officer Ly.  The second was the attempted use of Ms. Buzayan’s civil complaint to the police department to compel her to confess to the crime to Officer Gina Anderson.

In the end, we have never gotten to the bottom of these stories.  The damage to the community was tremendous in terms of the polarizing effect the official handling of this case produced.

At the same time, while the incident caused one police chief to leave under a cloud, and the HRC to be disbanded temporarily before being reconstituted a few months later, there are some positives.  A new police chief came in, Landy Black, who helped restore the professionalism of his department and increase public trust.  The position of police ombudsman, now police auditor, while a compromise from the civilian review request, has proven vital in helping to achieve reasonable police oversight.

It is also likely that, without this incident, there would be no Davis Vanguard – for better or for worse, depending on whom you might talk to.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Phote Captions: Protests in March 2006 exit City Hall.  Bottom: Halema Buzayan (in white) sits next to her father Jamal Buzayan at a community meeting at Davis Community Church in March 2006.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 thoughts on “Seven Years Later: Buzayan Case Ends with a Whimper”

  1. Siegel

    Unfortunately lawsuits do not work. Agencies know how to string them out, draining the resources of the public. The only thing that works is transparency and oversight in government.

    The good news is that two things that came from this – the Police Auditor and the Vanguard – have fixed that problem.

    Sadly, we will never get Pheng Ly to explain to us why he felt the need to arrest a minor at 10 pm at night for misdemeanor. Or why he felt compelled to investigate the case in the first place after teh family paid for the damage and the victim was disinclined to pursue the case.

    We will never understand why Ms. Buzayan’s rights were violated by a police officer ignoring her request for an attorney.

    This is a sad case that poor leadership blew from a series of mistakes to a polarizing debacle and now there will never be justice or closure.

    What a sad state of American jurisprudence.

  2. Frankly

    This case was your legacy David. It led to the city disbanding the Human Relations Commission that your wife chaired. The reason that the plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit is that it was based on lies and irrational hyper-sensitivity.

  3. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > Jamal Buzayan, the father of Ms. Buzayan, told the
    > Vanguard that the lawsuit was never about the money
    > for the family and always about justice. He turned down
    > several settlement offers in the past because they contained
    > no admission of wrongdoing or an apology.

    If it “was never about the money” he would not have asked for money.

    It is sad that this guy and his “hit and run” daughter has wasted so many people’s time and so much city money.

  4. wdf1

    Frankly: [i]This case was your legacy David. It led to the city disbanding the Human Relations Commission that your wife chaired.[/i]

    I’m not sure “disbanding” correctly captures what happened. I’m sure D. Greenwald could site chapter and verse of its history. The Human Relations Commission is still around ([url]http://city-council.cityofdavis.org/commissions/human-relations-commission[/url]).

  5. medwoman

    [quote]The reason that the plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit is that it was based on lies and irrational hyper-sensitivity.[/quote]

    And the source of your information to substantiate this assertion would be what ?

  6. Frankly

    The plaintiff characterized the behavior of the officer as rude and insensitive inferring hostile racism. Then the recording of the interaction came out and proved that the officer had behaved completely graciously and professionally.

  7. JustSaying

    [quote]“It is also likely that, without this incident, there would be no Davis Vanguard – for better or for worse, depending on whom you might talk to.”[/quote]Well, I’ll agree, that’s a good thing. But, as everything has played out, some might would wonder whether you rode a weak horse into town.[quote]“…the incident caused one police chief to leave under a cloud, and the HRC to be disbanded temporarily before being reconstituted a few months later….”[/quote]How did this single incident have such impact? Cause and effect for sure or were there other contributions to these two happenings? [quote]“In addition to the actual arrest, there are two other critical issues. The first is whether Ms. Buzayan had requested an attorney which was ignored by Officer Ly. The second was the attempted use of Ms. Buzayan’s civil complaint to the police department to compel her to confess to the crime to Officer Gina Anderson. In the end, we have never gotten to the bottom of these stories.”[/quote]I’d suggest we’ve gotten to the bottom of these issues now, with the dropping of the last of the legal claims.

  8. medwoman

    [quote]the officer had behaved completely graciously and professionally.[/quote]

    Regardless of how politely a police officer may have spoken, I would hardly call not allowing a teenager to dress when asked to do so as either gracious or professional. Just my opinion.

  9. JustSaying

    [quote]“Regardless of how politely a police officer may have spoken, I would hardly call not allowing a teenager to dress when asked to do so as either gracious or professional.”[/quote]One big question from this case is whether the alleged actions by police justified the family’s reactions and the uproar raised by some in the community.

    We’ll never know because during the past seven years, most of the Buzayan’s allegations have been tossed out and, now, they’ve decided not to pursue the few issues that were pending.

    Some will continue to criticize police for what the family and their attorneys allege happened by design (“every time he pushes down, he pushes down really hard” while fingerprinting). But, at this point,the arguments are pretty useless since we’ll never know what really went on and it’s impossible to make credible judgments about might have happened.

  10. Frankly

    The teenager dressing complaint is trivial twaddle. It would have given the mom time to coach her daughter on their family dishosty over who was driving.

  11. Michael Harrington

    I am familiar with this case, and I thought it always had merit as to the core claims. There is a lot of sworn evidence in the declarations submitted in the law and motion battles over the years.

    If plaintiff’s counsel was hourly, then I can see why, years later, the family decided to spend their resources on other more pressing family matters. It’s up to them. The $500,000 spent seems low for the extent of the legal proceedings.

  12. medwoman

    [quote]The teenager dressing complaint is trivial twaddle. It would have given the mom time to coach her daughter on their family dishosty over who was driving.[/quote]

    This could have easily been prevented by the officer insisting that the parents stay with him while the girl dressed.

    But I can’t help but wonder if you would be expressing the same sentiment if it had been your wife who had been arrested and taken out of your home in her sleep garb. I can tell you that I personally would be deeply offended at not being given the opportunity to put on public appropriate clothing.

  13. JustSaying

    [quote]“I am familiar with this case, and I thought it always had merit as to the core claims.”[/quote]It’s a shame for the Buzanyan family that you were so wrong that the courts would find merit.[quote]“The $500,000 spent seems low for the extent of the legal proceedings.”[/quote]Assuming that this figure is even close, what a sad commentary on the legal profession. That G. Whitney Leigh would take nearly a half-million dollars from this family to pursue hopeless racial and religious discrimination claims and defamation charges against protected people and entities makes one wonder if Buzanyans weren’t targeted by Attorney Leigh because of their richness.

    Why wouldn’t the Buzanyan Family be advised that their cases were perfect candidates to be dismissed by judges? They could have gotten away with paying, say, $500 for a consultation.

    Not only were their suits judged without merit, they ended up having to pay attorney costs for the other sides. Getting paid by the hour shouldn’t justify running up a bill this big with no results to show for the client.

  14. David M. Greenwald

    “It’s a shame for the Buzanyan family that you were so wrong that the courts would find merit.”

    The court did not throw out the core claims in the case.

    The core claims here:

    1. The arrest of the minor at home for a misdemeanor
    2. Officer Ly’s ignoring her request for council
    3. The inappropriate use of the IA investigation

    But it was going to take a few more years and probably another half a million to adjudicate.

  15. David M. Greenwald

    “How did this single incident have such impact? Cause and effect for sure or were there other contributions to these two happenings? “

    Did you read Chief Hyde’s resignation letter?

  16. David M. Greenwald

    “The plaintiff characterized the behavior of the officer as rude and insensitive inferring hostile racism. Then the recording of the interaction came out and proved that the officer had behaved completely graciously and professionally. “

    I have a problem with this comment. The complaint was that her rights were violated, not that the officer was rude.

    I tend to agree that it was not the most sensitive thing for the officer to insist on a late night arrest when he simply could have asked her to come down to the station in the morning. I don’t think you will find a lot of police officers who agree that was the best way to handle the arrest.

    But the core of the complaint was still centered on the ignoring of a clear request for council by a minor and the improper use of the investigation process.

  17. David M. Greenwald

    “This case was your legacy David. It led to the city disbanding the Human Relations Commission that your wife chaired. The reason that the plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit is that it was based on lies and irrational hyper-sensitivity. “

    I think this site is my legacy. And while the city in my view overreacted by disbanding the HRC, I think most people in the department agree that things are better now than they were during the Hyde administration. I also uncovered a rather concerted effort to damage the HRC and my wife’s reputation within the police chief’s office on company time.

    I stand by what I think the merits of this case were and the mistakes that were made that turned this into a big issue in the first place, but I don’t think this case is my legacy. If anything, I think the last seven years show just how small a part of my overall legacy this case really is. And I don’t think you can really disagree with me here.

  18. Frankly

    Agree with you David. But the Vanguard is not a legacy yet because you are still making it into something. The reason i commented was that it appears that the case is finally over.

    But you have turned lemons into lemonade with respect to this case and the Vanguard.

  19. JustSaying

    “The court did not throw out the core claims in the case.”

    I guess you’ll need to provide a link or at least a description of the suits that still were pending. The lawsuits that have been tossed out looked like significant “core claims” by most people’s standards.

    Why would the Buzanyan family spent seven years and $500,000 on unimportant, frivolous, non-core claims?

    I suspect they felt they pursuing significant claims that were important to them. I suspect they were misguided, however, hoping that the courts would feel the same outrage that some of their fellow Davisites expressed.

    I understand the desire to rationalize when quiting a losing cause. But, it seems likely they got to this point after considering the past dismissals and court findings where they were required to pay the winners’ attorney costs and thinking about the likelihood of yet another loss this month.

  20. David M. Greenwald

    what makes you think it was a losing cause? The causes of action that were decided against them quite frankly were stretches. I was never comfortable suing a newspaper for defamation. And suing the public officials for defamation in a case you publicized first didn’t make a whole lot more sense. So it really got stripped to the core of the complaint, those were left intact.

    What evidence do you have that they would have lost on the core complaints that I laid out above?

  21. David M. Greenwald

    I have no evidence either way. I do think they had legitimate complaints that survived summary judgment. But that’s just my personal opinion.

  22. JustSaying

    What are the claims they filed that were yet to be decided? Against whom were they filed? Please be specific about the pending legal cases as opposed to just sumarizing the concerns in list form.

    I have no proof about might have happened in the future if they have (or had) more suits to be decided, only that everything so far has been a loss.

    So, what does “it really got stripped to the core of the complaint” even mean? What does “those were left intact” mean? And, once they decided to quit, nothing still is “intact” by anyone’s definition.

    Call their complaints “stretches,” cases that make their supporters “uncomfortable” and that “don’t make a whole lot more sense” now if you want. Did the Vanguard argue against filing these losing causes? Did their attorney? Did the community, or did everyone just say, “you’re right, spend your $500,000….”

    What evidence do you have that they would have won anything if they hadn’t given up? Why don’t you agree that “there simply was not much left of the suit” and that the family wasn’t facing an adverse summary judgment the next time they showed up in court.

    While I’m sympathetic to what they’ve gone through, I’d guess that they’d just came to the realization that pursuing this further was hopeless (or, at least, not worth the time and money to try). To continue making claims given the results to date seems more than futile since no forum will resolve whatever’s left.

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