By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – The VANGUARD has learned that the city of Sacramento is the target of yet another legal action stemming from the wrongful arrest of about 85 people at a peaceful protest – including demonstrators, clergy, news reporters and legal observers – nearly a year ago at a police brutality demonstration in East Sacramento.
According to the filing, made available exclusively to the VANGUARD, the city of Sacramento is stonewalling a California Public Records Act request and has refused to turn over any documents as required by law.
The Sacramento County Superior Court pleading – filed on behalf of Anna von Herrmann by attorneys Abenicio Cisneros and Joseph Wangler – asks the court to intervene in the CPRA request that seeks documents and details surrounding the March 4, 2019 arrests.
Documents and information sought includes “names of those arrested in the March 4 mass arrest, the identity of officers participating in the arrest, whether Respondent (city of Sacramento) received complaints regarding the demonstration, which other law enforcement agencies participated in the mass arrests, and communications from City Officials to SPD regarding the demonstrations.”
The filing asserts that since the first request March 5, 2019 “more than 46 weeks have passed since Petitioner submitted her request and Respondent has failed to produce even a single record,” even though the city has acknowledged the request – promising disclosure on a number of occasions.
“There is no dispute that Respondent possesses the records, as it acknowledged on March 29, 2019. Respondent’s first-announced estimated date of production was April 30, 2019, 8 weeks after Petitioner submitted the Request. It is not clear that an 8-week delay constitutes ‘prompt’ production. However, Respondent missed that estimated date of production, as well as the next 5 estimated dates it set,” charges the pleading.
This is the second legal action filed over the mass arrests.
Civil rights attorney Mark Merin filed a class action lawsuit last year several months after the March 4 arrests held in the affluent “FAB 40s” section of East Sacramento around the area between 51st and 42nd Streets between J and Folsom – it was the first protest in the wealthier part of the city involving police brutality. Most protests against police brutality were held in the South Area of town, or downtown.
The march was noisy, but peaceful as it wound its way through streets surrounded by large, opulent homes worth more than $1 million each. However, when it reached Trader Joe’s grocery store around 9 p.m., an estimated 200 heavily armored officers toting handguns, rifles, pepper spray, tasers and batons told those in the area to disperse “or risk lethal and non-lethal” force.
When participants began to comply, officers charged, and after blocking all exits besides one, herded protestors and bystanders who couldn’t get through the police dragnet down 51st Street and across the 51st St. bridge over Highway 50, where they were met by more officers and mounted police.
All those in the area were arrested, even community and clergy leaders who said they had been in contact with Mayor Steinberg and Police Chief Hahn for weeks. even that evening. The County District Attorney’s office refused to file charges against any of those arrested.
The new court filing seeking documents about the arrests claims the city of Sacramento “frustrates the democratic process itself (and) obstructs public access to vital information and withholds from the public any opportunity to either promptly verify government accountability or to promptly check against the arbitrary exercise of official power.”
The records request pleading insists the city’s “continued failure to promptly disclose requested public records violates the CPRA (which) unambiguously forbids public agencies from delaying the production of public records, either through non-production or misuse of legal process.”
According to state law, an agency must search for, collect, and issue a determination of disclosability within 10 days and can usually only be extended by no more than 14 days.
The request to Superior Court for “injunctive and declaratory relief” declares that the city of Sacramento “is maintaining a shroud of secrecy around records related to the mass arrest of those demonstrating against police violence. Respondent’s complete denial of access violates not only the letter of the CPRA, but also its spirit,” adding:
“Openness in government is essential to the functioning of democracy. Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.”
The pleading asks the court for a writ of mandate to force the city to “immediately disclose all non-exempt information Petitioner requested…. a declaration that records Petitioner seeks are disclosable, were not produced promptly, and that Respondent’s conduct fails to comply with the CPRA” and a “permanent injunction enjoining Respondent from continuing its pattern and practice of violating the CPRA.”
It also seeks the court to require the city to “track and report to the Court and to the public on its responses to public records requests for a period of time not less than three years.”
At the scene of the mass arrests, 85 people were detained and arrested originally, but Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler was released after being held handcuffed for more than an hour, despite his clearly visible press credentials. A Bee photographer was also shoved to the ground by Sacramento PD, and equipment damaged.
Named defendants in the federal action are the City of Sacramento, Sacramento Police Dept., County of Sacramento, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept and “DOES 1-400,” including officers from the California Highway Patrol.
The Merin class action also pointedly singles out 50 of the unnamed defendants as “policymaking officials and/or had been delegated policymaking authority” for the city of Sacramento and Sacramento PD. No one has claimed responsibility for the decision-making actions of police that night, despite assurances by Steinberg and SPD Chief Hahn that they would do so.
The class action suit was filed for named representatives of the class: Sacramento State University Hornet reporter William Coburn, Alex Lyons, Kristina Marie Mayorga and SSU Black Student co-founder Khalil Ferguson, and 80 others.
Other reporters were arrested – this reporter narrowly averted arrest – in addition to Kasler and Coburn, including Scott Rodd, then of the Sacramento Business Journal and now Capital Public Radio reporter.
Two legal observers with the Sacramento chapter of the National Lawyers Guild were also handcuffed and arrested, although police treat them as non-participants at protests normally.
The lawsuit asserts the “class” – those arrested that night – were deprived of their civil rights, including detention/arrest, unreasonable search, use of force without sufficient governmental interest, retaliatory detention/arrest and discriminatory detention/arrest “ratified by policymaking officials.”
According to the 34-page suit, a number of those arrested reported injuries during the arrests, including cuts and bruises. Those arrested were also not allowed to use restroom facilities in the long hours in custody.
In fact, the lawsuit – which lists 15 causes of action – states that law enforcement “retaliated” against demonstrators and bystanders for the exercise of their constitutionally-protected rights.
The lawsuit asks the court for a determination that the actions of the defendants “violate the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and article I, §§ 2, 3, 7(a), and 13 of the California Constitution,” for a preliminary and permanent injunction against City of Sacramento, Sacramento PD and “DOES” 100-400, an award of compensatory, general, and special damages against defendants.
Finally, the class action suit asks for exemplary or punitive damages in as “amount sufficient to deter and to make an example of them, because their actions and/or inactions, as alleged, were motivated by evil motive or intent, involved reckless or callous indifference to federally protected rights, or were wantonly or oppressively done, or constituted oppression, fraud, or malice resulting in great harm.”