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Lawsuits & Litigation

Sacramento Sued for Mass Arrests During Stephon Clark Protests

— May 20, 2019

The lawsuit says officers wanted to keep protesters out of Sacramento’s wealthy east side.

Attorneys for dozens of people arrested during spring’s Stephon Clark marches in Sacramento are suing the city in federal court, alleging that its law enforcement violated the civil rights of protesters.

According to the Sacramento Bee, the 34-page complaint was filed in Sacramento federal court by attorneys Mark Merin and Paul Masuhara. The lawsuit lists an assortment of purported police excesses, ranging from assault to false imprisonment.

The rally, which took place in March, was a response to the D.A.’s decision not to file charges against the officers accused of killing 22-year old Stephon Clark.

Clark, an African-American man, was shot to death after police responded to reports of an unidentified man breaking into neighborhood vehicles. When cruisers arrived, Clark was observed by a helicopter fleeing into his grandmother’s backyard.

In the darkness, officers opened fire when they saw Clark brandishing an object they believed to be a firearm. But body-cam footage showed him unarmed, an iPhone in his hand.

Like other police shootings, prosecutors declined to press charges, citing an oft-employed excuse.

“There is no question that the death of Stephon Clark is a tragedy, not just for his family but for the community,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said on March 2nd. “My job as a district attorney is to make sure we conduct a full, fair and independent review of this shooting.”

“We must recognize that [law enforcement] are often forced to make split-second decisions,” Schubert said. “We must also recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly-evolving circumstances.

Sacramento’s decision no to press charges against the officers involved in Stephon Clark’s death follows a broad pattern of prosecutors holding law enforcement to low standards for what constitutes a “justified” shooting. Image via Wikimedia Commons. No author named. (CCA-BY-3.0)

“That is the crux of the whole case: Did the officers have an honest and reasonable belief that they needed to defend themselves?”

Schubert, says the Washington Post, concluded trained police officers were justified in shooting a man who happened to be outside, in the dark and holding something in his hand.

Attorneys noted that extant case law supports Schubert’s decision—but the D.A. further offended sensibilities when she disclosed irrelevant information about Clark’s mental health during a press conference.

Protests broke out in the days following Clark’s death and continued through early March, when Schubert announced no charges.

In one incident, outlined in the complaint, culminated in riot-control officers herding a large group of demonstrators onto an overpass, arresting 84.

The suit claims the mass detentions were made without cause, infringing upon the protesters’ constitutionally-guaranteed right to assemble. Furthermore, notes the Bee, the complaint accuses police of an intentional infliction of emotional distress upon arrested individuals, with the explicit backing of Sacramento city and county leaders.

Plaintiffs say the riot gear and arrests were unnecessary—and that the crackdown, more than anything, was meant to dissuade disruption to the affluent residents of East Sacramento.

“The March 4, 2019, demonstration was the first ever to occur in a wealthier, predominately-white area of Sacramento,” the lawsuit states. “Unlike prior demonstrations involving the death of Stephon Clark occurring in other locations within Sacramento, the March 4, 2019, demonstration was the first to involve a mass arrest response by law enforcement.”

While the suit was filed on behalf of four individuals taken into custody at the protest, attorneys are expanding its scope to include 400 others who were at the rally.

The Bee characterizes the protest as “largely peaceful.” Despite demonstrators’ purported passivity, many had their wrists zip-tied together after police broke up the gathering.

Now, with litigation pending, Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn is pledging an investigation into the mass arrests—and, says the Bee, city Mayor Darrell Steinberg is also demanding answers.

But Schubert, within a week of the round-up, again opted not to press charges.


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