Mother discusses son’s severe brain damage after police used batons and Tasers to subdue him
The Sacramento City Council on Tuesday approved a $5.2 million payout for an excessive force lawsuit of a 2017 incident in which police tased a 34-year-old man so many times his family said he was left with the mental capability of a toddler.
In a closed-door session, the council voted to approve the settlement for the family of John Hernandez, who was tased nine times and struck by officers’ batons at least five times while being arrested, according to court documents.
The settlement is believed to be the largest in the city’s history, far surpassing last year’s settlements of $2.8 million for 24 lawsuits, four of which police were alleged to have used excessive force.
“Although the city and involved SPD officers dispute liability in connection with plaintiff’s claim, the parties agreed to settle in order to avoid further, protracted litigation and to eliminate the significant risk to both sides of trying this case to verdict,” Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood told The Sacramento Bee in prepared remarks.
Hernandez’s mother and caretaker, Debbie Hernandez, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
John Burris, the family’s attorney, said the case was “rigorously fought.”
“This is a devastating case in terms of the lifelong impact on (Hernandez),” Burris said. “... This is a person who literally died and was brought back to life, so a tragic, tragic case in that sense.”
“This is important from my perspective because of the level of police involvement with him,” Burris added. “The use of the tasers, the multiple use of the tasers, by officers who apparently either were not trained or didn’t follow the training or manual that had been given to them. As a consequence of that, they used it many more times then they should have.”
“And the issue that is troubling to me, this really started out as a minor event,” he said. “This is a man who may have been creating a public disturbance, but he wasn’t physically assaulting anyone, he didn’t have a weapon. ... But under the principles of de-escalation, (police) could have slowed this process down ... so it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that created this environment.”
The incident occurred March 6, 2017, after two people called 911 to report Hernandez for acting erratically at the Rite Aid on Alhambra Boulevard. Callers reported that Hernandez appeared to be under the influence of drugs, according to court documents.
Hernandez had a history of methamphetamine use, the city’s trial brief states, and he had the illicit substance in his system at the time of the incident, Wood said.
“While under the influence of methamphetamine, John Hernandez threatened a number of citizens with violence and was a threat to the community,” Wood said. “In response to multiple 911 calls from citizens regarding the threats made by Mr. Hernandez, the Sacramento Police Department dispatched officers who attempted to take Mr. Hernandez into custody.”
Three officers were dispatched to the East Sacramento pharmacy, identified in the lawsuit as Ishmael Villegas, Michael Hight and Casey Dionne.
Officers found Villegas in a parking lot. When they tried to detain him, Hernandez crouched behind an open passenger door on a nearby car and then fled, running into the lobby of a Sutter medical building across the street.
“At the time Mr. Hernandez ran away, he was suspected of no violent crime or felony,” according the complaint filed by Burris’ law firm. Hernandez was also not armed during the incident.
Police released dashboard camera of the incident because officers were not equipped with body cameras at the time.
He continued down a hallway of the medical building, and the three officers struggled with him on the ground for at least six minutes, the city’s trial brief said.
Security camera footage from building did not capture the struggle.
“A struggle ensued and three officers, including the initial responding officer who appeared to weight 300+ pounds, used their body weight, strikes and control holds to force Mr. Hernandez to the ground,” according to the brief.
Hernandez was “violently resisting,” the city’s attorneys said in a trial brief.
Hernandez was “drive-stun tased” at least nine times, a method in which a stun gun is applied to the skin to gain pain compliance.
Hernandez was also “jabbed” with a baton “five or six times,” the trial brief said.
At one point, the complaint said, Hernandez stopped breathing and officers called for medical assistance. While the city argued Hernandez was still breathing when paramedics arrived, the complaint said “Mr. Hernandez was completely without oxygen to his brain, as the emergency medical care providers administered CPR for over 10 minutes.”
The fire department incident report said Hernandez was “found in police custody and unresponsive. CPR initiated,” The Bee reported.
Hernandez was transported to Sutter Medical Center where he was pronounced with a severe brain damage and kidney failure, among other injuries.
He was in a coma for days and couldn’t breathe on his own for weeks after the incident, The Bee reported at the time.
In a 2017 interview with The Bee, Hernandez’s mother said her son requires 24-hour supervision and help with basic activities, as well as ongoing physical, speech and occupational therapy. Everyday, she helps him shower, dress and eat. Once an active skateboarder with a job at a car wash, she said, Hernandez now spends his days listening to music and watching TV.
Burris said the settlement, which includes attorney’s fees, will be used to pay for Hernandez’s physical and speech rehabilitation.
“There can be never be a winner after a horrific tragedy like this but Mr. Hernandez’s settlement will ensure that he can be cared for in the years to come,” Burris said in prepared remarks.
Burris’ firm has represented families in numerous high profile police use-of-force cases in the Sacramento region, including Nandi Cain, and the shooting deaths of Joseph Mann and Mikel McIntyre.