Civil rights attorney talks upcoming legal battle for 84 people arrested at Stephon Clark protest
Attorneys for the marchers confronted by police during Stephon Clark demonstrations in East Sacramento are suing the city of Sacramento, Sacramento County and its police and sheriff’s departments in federal court alleging civil rights violations in the mass crackdown that netted 84 people in the March protest.
The 34-page suit filed Thursday in Sacramento federal court by attorneys Mark Merin and Paul Masuhara alleges a lengthy list of claims, including assault, false arrest, false imprisonment, unreasonable search and retaliation in the March 4 demonstrations that ended with riot gear-clad police and deputies herding the protesters onto the 51st Street overpass.
The suit claims law enforcement retaliated against the demonstrators for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to protest, arrested or detained them without cause or warrants and intentionally inflicted emotional distress – all with the blessing of Sacramento city and county leaders.
Sacramento officials are reviewing the suit, City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“The City of Sacramento is in receipt of the class-action lawsuit and currently is reviewing it,” Wood said. “The City remains committed to keeping its residents and communities safe and allowing people to assemble peacefully and express their First Amendment rights.”
A county spokeswoman Friday said she had no additional information.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys allege a combination of department policy and culture and a lack of training led to the mass arrests – a muscular reaction blasted by critics as an outsized display designed to show wealthy neighborhoods like East Sacramento were off-limits to demonstrators.
Police officials initially shrugged, saying the Fab 40s’ demographic did not factor into the decision to send helmeted officers to the scene.
“Every protest is unique to say the least. You truly can’t compare one to the other,” Sacramento police spokesman Marcus Basquez said in the days after the crackdown.
Thursday’s lawsuit echoes protestors’ claims and alleges the action was “ratified by policymaking officials.”
“The March 4, 2019, demonstration was the first to occur in a wealthier, predominantly-white area of Sacramento. 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,” the suit reads.
The suit filed on behalf of four people – Sacramento State University student journalist William Coburn, Kristina Marie Mayorga, Sacramento State student and campus Black Student Union founder Khalil Ferguson and Alex Lyons – also includes some 400 others who attorneys say were at the protests.
Coburn, a reporter for the university’s State Hornet newspaper, was arrested along with then-Sacramento Business Journal writer Scott Rodd. Rodd has since joined Capital Public Radio. Sacramento Bee staff writer Dale Kasler was detained by police and later released. Sacramento Bee photojournalist Hector Amezcua was pushed by a uniformed officer and his equipment was damaged. Amezcua was unhurt.
The largely peaceful demonstration in the Fab 40s protested Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s decision not to prosecute the Sacramento police officers who fatally shot the 22-year-old Clark in March 2018 after they mistook the cellphone he carried for a gun.
The march had gone on for several hours and was coming to an end when officers and deputies carrying batons, pepper spray, tear gas and rifles began to mass at the scene – a show of force to end the protest.
Within hours, 84 people, including ministers and legal observers, were detained, their wrists zip-tied.
Many were detained for hours, denied access to restroom facilities, then hauled onto waiting buses for the drive to a makeshift holding center at Cal Expo, the suit alleged. Police said they responded to reports that parked cars in the neighborhood had been vandalized.
Protesters and observers accused the officers of “kettling” – deliberately cutting off marchers’ ability to leave on their own by posting at the overpass – and of declaring the demonstration an “unlawful assembly.”
Protesters in the heated days and weeks after Clark’s killing took to downtown Sacramento streets, blocked the entrance to Golden 1 Center prior to a Sacramento Kings home game and ascended a freeway off-ramp. Protesters kept weekly vigil outside Schubert’s downtown offices urging her to file criminal charges. All were met with restraint by Sacramento police officers.
Sacramento law enforcement took a decidedly different approach on March 4. The controversial police response to the Fab 40 march quickly came under fire from activists, press freedom advocates, local clergy and legal experts.
Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn promised an investigation into the arrests. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg demanded answers. Schubert, less than a week after the mass roundup, decided not to file charges.