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  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Jovon Kelly, left, and Andrew Latshaw are among five plaintiffs suing Twin Rivers Unified and its police over their arrest in 2010. Choking is alleged.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Andrew Latshaw, right, and Jovon Kelly talk Thursday about their suit against the Twin Rivers district. The suit says Latshaw was arrested at gunpoint, held for a day and then released; Kelly and three others were held for four days.

Civil rights suit names former Twin Rivers Unified leadership, Police Department

Published: Friday, Sep. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 - 7:56 am

The Twin Rivers Unified School District will be living for a long time with the scandals that have engulfed it, thanks in no small part to a civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday in Sacramento federal court.

While the suit is built around the arrest and alleged abuse of five young men by district police officers two years ago, it also accuses the now-deposed leadership of the district and its Police Department of fostering a culture of citizen abuse.

The men claim they were arrested on Sept. 17, 2010, for no apparent reason, and then three of them were later brutally choked by an officer.

They were all jailed. Andrew Latshaw, then 21, was booked on suspicion of misdemeanor interfering with an officer, held for a day and released. But the others – Latshaw's half-brothers Demonte Kelly, then 18, and Jovon Kelly, then 19; Austin Westall, then 20, and Andres Gutierrez, then 18, who is a cousin of Latshaw and the Kelly brothers – were held four days after six-figure bail amounts were set because they were booked "on a slew of felony charges," the suit recounts.

The District Attorney's Office declined to charge them with anything.

The suit states that the conduct of the officers involved in these events grew out of a "failure to control subordinates with a history of misbehavior and failure to correct unconstitutional practices or conditions" on the part of Frank Porter, former Twin Rivers Unified School District superintendent; Christopher Breck, Twin Rivers police chief at the time of the incident who has been on paid administrative leave since November; Ziggy Robeson, the district's deputy superintendent; and Chue Lor, a sergeant in the Twin Rivers Police Department.

They are all named as defendants in the suit along with former Twin Rivers Officer Branche Smith, who is accused of choking three of the plaintiffs, and Officers Taras Chernyy, Anthony Ruiz and Emily Kelly, who were at the scenes of the arrests or Smith's attack on the prisoners.

The suit, which seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages, alleges constitutional violations, including unreasonable seizure, excessive force, and derelict supervision and training.

Calls to Robeson and her attorney were not returned. Smith's attorney, Christopher Miller, said he had not seen the suit and thus could not comment. Lor, Chernyy and Emily Kelly said they had no comment. Ruiz did not respond to an e-mail. Porter and Breck could not be reached.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on the Friday of the arrests, Westall, Gutierrez and the Kelly brothers were seated in a car parked in front of a North Highlands home where Latshaw, the Kelly brothers, and others lived. Chernyy drove by in a police cruiser, made a U-turn and stopped behind the car.

The officer later said he stopped because he "felt" the car's occupants "looking at me" and saw one of them "slouched down." He also said he thought they might be truants, but there was no school that day because teachers had non-class duties.

Jovon Kelly claims Chernyy pulled out his baton, then drew his firearm and put it in Kelly's face.

Chernyy then called for code 3 cover and, with lights on and sirens wailing, cars from Twin Rivers and Sacramento Police Departments and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department rolled onto the street and officers emerged with weapons drawn.

Latshaw, who had been sleeping in the house, was awakened by all the commotion and emerged to be arrested at gunpoint, the suit states.

The five were taken to the Twin Rivers Police Department.

While the arrestees were sitting in the station, Smith burst into the room "in an obviously agitated state," the suit says.

Latshaw and Smith had words, and Smith allegedly put both hands around his neck and began choking him. Smith also stepped behind Demonte Kelly and began choking him, according to the suit, which was filed on behalf of the men by attorney Stewart Katz.

The officer also began choking Westall, but apparently was irritated by his victim's shaking body, so he stepped back, drew his Taser, put it on Westall's chest and threatened to "light you up" if he didn't "stop shaking," according to the suit.

"These actions took place within the view of nearly half of the Twin Rivers Police Department's officers," the suit alleges. "None of the officers took any steps to intervene or protect the plaintiffs."

Smith is facing misdemeanor criminal charges in connection with the incident.

Acting Twin Rivers Police Chief Scott LaCosse said Thursday that soon after Smith was placed on administrative leave in January, four officers in the department came forward with information about the incident. He said the officers had approached previous management and "little to no action was taken."

LaCosse would not name the officers, but said three of them are still with the department and are defendants in the suit.

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