Yolo County, UC Davis to pay $7,500 each to settle protester's 2009 lawsuit

Published: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 8:56 am

The tumult and the shouting and the legal fallout are now all in the past, but they will remain with Brienna Holmes.

Dismissal papers were filed last week in her civil rights lawsuit against Yolo County and the University of California, Davis.

Each paid her $7,500 to settle the matter.

Holmes had sued in Sacramento federal court over her prosecution following a 2009 arrest by sheriff's deputies – the sole criminal case arising from a protest at Davis during a period of unrest across UC campuses.

"After all this time," she said last week in a telephone interview, "I still have not processed it. I still don't really understand what happened to me and why. The way I feel is hard to put into words."

She says she was just a face in a crowd outside Mrak Hall, the school's central administration building, "peacefully and lawfully observing police arrest student protesters," who had occupied the building in denunciation of steep tuition and fee hikes.

She was tried in 2010 after being charged with battery on a police captain and resisting arrest. A Yolo Superior Court jury deadlocked 10-2 for acquittal on the battery count and 6-6 on the resisting count. A mistrial was declared, and the District Attorney's Office dropped the charges.

Of the settlement, Daniel Cederborg, assistant Yolo County counsel, said the county's share "is much less than the expected cost of litigating this matter to a successful conclusion. … The decision to settle … represents wise stewardship of public resources."

Yolo sheriff's spokesman Mark Persons failed to return messages seeking comment.

Through Director of Public Affairs Claudia Morain, the university declined comment.

At the time of the incident, Holmes, a sociology student, was planning to go to law school. Instead, she went to court. Today, at 23, she has put law school on hold.

She is currently in her native Los Angeles area with a job related to Internet political strategy and fundraising for nonprofits.

"I have seen how the legal system works up close and personal," she said. "The education system, too. I have learned how unfair both can be. I have learned things they don't teach in school."

On a November 2009 evening, the protest at Mrak Hall had been cut off and students were being led out of the building in handcuffs by police. While Holmes had been in the building earlier, at that point she was essentially a bystander, she claims.

Suddenly she was face-to-face with UC Davis Police Capt. Joyce Souza, who was ordering her to back up, according to Holmes.

Although she complied, Holmes said, Souza shoved her in the chest with open palms several times. When Holmes put her hands out to regain her balance, Souza bumped her and slapped her hands down, Holmes said.

Her civil rights complaint states that Yolo County Sheriff's Deputies Gary Richter and Ryan Mez "grabbed Ms. Holmes and violently slammed her onto the hood of a patrol vehicle, pinning her arm – which had gotten caught in the strap of her bag – under her weight, the weight of the bag, and the weight of both officers."

"The deputies repeatedly grabbed and jerked Ms. Holmes' limbs, ignoring her screams that her arm was stuck and in pain," it states. "Out of fear and pain, Ms. Holmes then urinated on herself."

The complaint claims she suffered physical injuries, emotional distress and public humiliation.

Souza, formerly a Yolo County sheriff's deputy, testified at the trial that Holmes, "like a lot of people," was "clapping … cheering the arrestees on," and she encroached on the path of officers marching the "prisoners" through the crowd.

Souza told the jury she ordered Holmes to "step back," but Holmes did not comply, and when Souza stepped between Holmes and the two deputies, Holmes "kind of pushed against me, and … all I did was basically extend my arms … to kind of just push her back."

Holmes shoved her and slapped her chest, Souza testified, and when she moved towards Holmes, "she continued to slap in my direction."

When the two deputies grabbed Holmes' arms, she struggled, Souza recalled. "They eventually put her on the hood of the car … and finally got her in handcuffs," she said. The interaction lasted "less than a minute."

Testimony by Mez and Richter corroborated Souza's.

Fifty-one students who occupied the building were ticketed at the scene for trespassing – a charge less than a misdemeanor – and released. Those charges were later dropped after the university's chancellor interceded on behalf of the protesters.

Only Holmes was prosecuted.

"I was singled out," she said.

Holmes attorney Stewart Katz said she just wanted a "clean record," but Yolo prosecutors would not cooperate in obtaining a finding of factual innocence.

"They said, 'Tough, go ahead and sue, we don't care,' " Katz related in a phone interview last week.

But Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven said in a phone interview last week, "Six jurors felt beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Holmes violated the law, which indicates that some members of the community had strong feelings about Ms. Holmes' conduct. … That is not factual innocence."

Holmes declared she is vindicated by the civil settlement. She is convinced that the county and the university are so angry they would not have paid her a penny, "unless they know they were wrong. I didn't do anything wrong, and that's what this proves."

The defendants insist the settlement is simply a cost-saving device, also designed "to buy their peace," according to legal papers ending the case.

The Holmes matter was seen as precursor to a November 2011 confrontation on the campus quad, during which a university police officer matter of factly shot pepper spray at point-blank range into the faces of a line of seated protesters targeting rising tuitions. The incident was captured on videos that went viral online and sparked international attention and outrage.

A civil lawsuit resulted in a settlement of $1 million – including $30,000 for each pepper-sprayed protester and an apology letter to each of them from UCD Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi.

By the time the pepper-spray incident took place, the criminal case against Holmes had collapsed and her suit against UC Davis and Yolo County alleging violations of her constitutional rights had been on file in federal court more than nine months.

"One of the saddest things," Holmes said, "is the university didn't learn anything from what happened to me."

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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