Journalist Sues City of Fresno to Obtain Records Tied to Taser Killing Nearly 20 Years Ago

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By Crescenzo Vellucci

The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

FRESNO, CA – The city of Fresno is being sued here in Fresno County Superior Court in an effort to obtain long hidden police use-of-force records requested by a journalist about the death of a Michael Sanders, who was tased at least 10 times in 2004 by Fresno police officers.

East Bay-based reporter Brian Howey said the city of Fresno has refused to release its records he requested when he was doing background work for a Los Angeles Times piece that ran this past March 28, “After police killings, families are kept in the dark and grilled for information.”

According to a statement released by the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), Howey “requested the recordings and transcripts of all interviews with Sanders’ family and friends conducted by Fresno police investigators related to the use of force during the incident” under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) .

FAC and Tenaya Rodewald and Matthew Halgren of the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton represent Howey.

The complaint filed by FAC alleges officers deployed the deadly tasers on Sanders “10 times, including ‘several drive-stuns to Michael’s groin area,’ with up to 14 electric cycles,” according to information from a civil case related to Sanders’ death in Sanders v. City of Fresno.

FAC, citing the civil case, added Sanders was shot five times “with Taser darts, drive stunned five times…and had a maximum of  14, five-second cycles applied to him.”

FAC’s complaint charges, based on earlier deposition testimony, “three officers used their Tasers on Mr. Sanders. The first officer fired his Taser in dart mode three times, hitting Mr. Sanders in the upper body, left arm, and back…(a)second officer fired his Taser in dart mode twice, initially into Mr. Sanders’ stomach for one cycle and then into his back, holding the trigger down for up to four more cycles (and a) third officer executed five Taser drive-stuns to Mr. Sanders’s groin, each for a five-second cycle.”

The FAC pleading notes, according to the Fresno County Coroner’s report, Sanders “sustained at least eleven Taser puncture wounds, including four ‘on the front of the right groin,’ with one that ‘show[ed] surrounding carbonization’ or charring of his flesh, two on the left thigh ‘with the probes still in place’ and two ‘in the left flank area with the probes still in place.’”

Sanders’ widow, Lavette Sanders, said during a federal civil suit “three officers fired their Tasers at Michael Sanders 10 times, five in drive-stun mode to his groin. In drive-stun mode, a Taser’s electrodes are pushed directly against the skin.”

FAC, in the current suit, stressed, “Used in drive-stun mode, Tasers commonly cause serious burns. Tasers inflict excruciating pain, and the coroner’s report on Michael Sanders’ death showed that he suffered severe burns to his groin and numerous puncture wounds from being tased.”

“The repeated use of Tasers on Mr. Sanders by Fresno police officers, causing 11 puncture wounds, 14 five-second cycles of shock, and charring of his flesh, represents an ‘incident involving the use of force against a person by a peace officer … that resulted in … great bodily injury,’” FAC alleged in the lawsuit.

“The city refused to provide the records, contending they are not subject to disclosure under the CPRA because there was ‘no report, investigation, or finding of an incident involving the use of force against a person by a peace officer that resulted in death or great bodily injury,’ and because the coroner listed the cause of death for Sanders as cocaine intoxication, not use of force,” according to FAC.

Journalist Howey notes the “records are still subject to disclosure under the CPRA even if the use of force did not result in death, as long as it caused ‘great bodily injury,’ arguing “disclosure (is required) of all records related to that incident such as investigative reports and transcripts or recordings of interviews, regardless of whether the use of force was investigated or deemed legally justified or within police department policy.”

The city maintains Fresno police did not subject Sanders to use of force resulting in “great bodily injury,” said FAC.

In a statement, Howey said, “Michael Sanders suffered from multiple puncture wounds and burns to his groin from being tased repeatedly by three officers and died shortly thereafter. For the city of Fresno to assert this is not ‘great bodily injury’ is a grave insult to the public and common sense. What are they hiding, nearly 20 years after Mr. Sanders’ death?”

FAC said SB 1421, approved by the CA Legislature in 2018, governs in this case, arguing it “promotes transparency in law enforcement, because [t]he public has a strong, compelling interest in law enforcement transparency because it is essential to having a just and democratic society.”

FAC notes the “law specifically calls for the release of records for, among other things, ‘An incident in which the use of force by a peace officer or custodial officer against a person resulted in death, or in great bodily injury.’”

The city of Fresno’s “violations of law…will continue unless and until they are commanded by this Court to produce the public records requested and to not engage in such further violations of law by a declaratory judgment declaring their conduct unlawful,” the FAC lawsuit contends.

“(A)bsent injunctive relief, (Fresno city) will continue to withhold public information as they have done here, resulting in great and irreparable injury to Petitioner and the public at large by depriving them of immediate access to information vital to the public interest and necessary for self-government,” the pleading continues.

 “When it passed SB 1421, the California Legislature noted the extraordinary power police have over people’s lives, and the enormous responsibility law enforcement has to exercise that power honestly and faithfully,” said FAC Legal Director David Loy.

“The city of Fresno is not exempt from this law, which was designed to lift the cloak of secrecy that historically concealed almost all police records from public disclosure,” Loy added.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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