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Lawsuit alleges Rocklin police targeted African American athlete

College football player Nebraska Huggins talks about lawsuit against Rocklin Police

College football player Nebraska Huggins talks about lawsuit against Rocklin Police after he was arrested while outside his apartment with roommate. Reporting by Sam Stanton.
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College football player Nebraska Huggins talks about lawsuit against Rocklin Police after he was arrested while outside his apartment with roommate. Reporting by Sam Stanton.

Just after 1 a.m. on a clear, cool night in May 2014, a Sierra College student named Nebraska Huggins was sitting on a stairwell at the Shaliko Apartments in Rocklin. In an interview, he recalled that he was talking to his roommate about his prospects for a summer job at Chipotle.

The two young men were both athletes at the Placer County college – Huggins, a starting tight end on the football team, his roommate, Brandon Rylee, a member of the swim team.

Classes for the 2014 spring semester had ended the day before, and Huggins said he had stopped by his apartment to get some clothes for the Chipotle job interview the next morning before heading back to his girlfriend’s home.

Many of the other residents at the Mediterranean-style complex were celebrating the start of summer break, including a group inside the pair’s second-story apartment. Another party had spilled out into the parking lot.

The late-night disturbance apparently was too much for one resident, who summoned Rocklin police.

What happened over the next couple of hours is now the subject of explosive allegations in a civil rights lawsuit against Rocklin officers that claims Huggins, who is African American, was singled out for harassment and intimidation by three white police officers because of his race.

The suit, filed in federal court in Sacramento this month, claims police forced Huggins and Rylee, his white roommate, to the ground, handcuffed them and kicked Huggins in the face when he asked an officer why he had drawn his pistol out of its holster. Then, both sides agree, the handcuffed pair were driven away to a dark, empty parking lot a mile away for more questioning.

“I’m like, ‘Why are we in a vacant parking lot? Why aren’t we going to the precinct?’ ” Huggins said this month in an interview at the office of his Sacramento attorney, Stewart Katz. “I thought I was going to die, basically.”

Huggins’ lawsuit says that at the parking lot, he was taken out of the car and questioned by an officer, who made it clear he needed to answer questions the way police wanted.

“In particular, Huggins was told to say he had consumed a significant quantity of alcohol, and that had affected his actions,” the lawsuit claims. Huggins said he didn’t drink that night, and in fact doesn’t drink at all.

The case was dropped after he spent 23 hours in jail on charges of resisting arrest, obstructing an officer and being drunk in public. Huggins’ lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages and names as defendants the city of Rocklin and three officers. It alleges violations of Huggins’ rights guaranteed by federal and state constitutional, statutory and common law, including the rights to be free from unreasonable seizure, excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution.

Rocklin police, in statements issued to The Sacramento Bee and in crime reports filed by officers involved in the arrests, dispute the claims in the lawsuit. Police say their original review of the incident showed “there were no violations of department policy, state or federal laws.”

However, Police Lt. Scott Horrillo said the department takes the allegations seriously, and the claims in the lawsuit have sparked a new internal investigation into what happened.

In their reports, officers at the scene described a chaotic night, during which Huggins and Rylee were intoxicated and fighting with police. They said they whisked the pair away from the complex to the parking lot because other residents were streaming out and challenging officers, including one who ran past them shouting, “If I had a 12-gauge shotgun, I would shoot you all.”

Such mayhem is rare in Rocklin, which boasts on its website of its low crime rate. It has a department with 52 sworn officers.

Of the 53,776 incidents Rocklin police handled last year, only 12 resulted in formal complaints against the department. Of the 1,208 arrests officers made, only nine required the use of force.

Huggins, now 22, said he has never been in trouble with the law before. Since that night, he has had to change his life and his goals.

Although his white roommate was allowed to continue swimming for the college, Huggins was kicked off the football team while he was still in jail, something his lawsuit says resulted from Rocklin police contacting his coach.

He has moved out of Rocklin, and has abandoned his dream of what he would do after he finished playing football.

“Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cop,” said Huggins. “But that changed after I got arrested.”

School, home and church

Nebraska Huggins was a long way from home when he enrolled at Sierra College in 2013.

Named for his grandfather and raised by his mother in New York City – most recently the Bronx – Huggins moved west in hopes of finding a football program that could serve as a stepping stone to a big-time collegiate team.

It was his first time away from home. Initially, he tried Feather River College in Quincy, but went back to New York because of a death in the family.

He returned to California and settled on Sierra College. The 311-acre campus about half an hour’s drive from downtown Sacramento boasts success as a football program feeding players to Sacramento State and to major university programs such as Oklahoma, Oregon and Arizona. Some former Sierra players have gone on to the NFL.

Placer County’s population differs dramatically from the diversity of the Bronx, where Huggins lived when he went to high school. About 75 percent of its residents are white; less than 2 percent are African American, census figures show.

Sierra College’s enrollment demographics are similar, with about 15,000 white students and 680 African Americans.

Huggins’ mother, Harrien Dobson, worries about her son, who she said can be “naive” and has led a quiet, protected life.

“School, his home and his church have been his whole life,” Dobson said in a phone interview from her home in the Bronx. “He keeps to himself. He has never used alcohol or drugs, and I didn’t let him hang out on the streets.

“He’s never been in any trouble. I never had one minute’s worth of trouble with him.”

She also said that racial problems had never been part of Huggins’ life because of where he grew up.

“He doesn’t know anything about black and white,” she said. “Everybody’s just the same where we live. Everybody’s just people.”

Despite the racial disparity of his new home in Rocklin, the 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Huggins said he fit in well. He shared an apartment with white roommates and joined the Sierra College Thundercats, the broom-riding Quidditch team inspired by author J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels.

And he loved his time playing football, starting at tight end for 10 regular-season games and appearing in the San Francisco Community College Bowl.

Then, someone called the police, and his life in Rocklin came to an abrupt end.

‘Nebraska kept quiet’

The first call described a loud party “with yelling and screaming,” according to a report filed by Officer Jeffrey Kolaskey, who was dispatched along with Officer Anthony Handley. Soon, another call reported a fight “involving 10 subjects in the grass area” close to the apartment building next door to Huggins’ apartment.

Both sides agree that when police arrived, Huggins and his roommate were sitting on the steps leading to their apartment, where a party was going on inside. Kolaskey wrote that he could hear yelling coming from the apartment and “needed to make sure everyone was OK.”

“As I started to walk up the stairs Nebraska and Brandon both immediately got up and blocked my path to the apartment,” Kolaskey wrote.

Huggins told the officer that the police did not have the right to go inside their home without a warrant, according to Kolaskey’s report.

Both sides agree that they then all moved up to the 3-foot-by-5-foot landing in front of the apartment door, where Kolaskey and two other officers insisted that they be allowed to check inside the apartment.

What happened next is in dispute. One officer reached inside Huggins’ arm to try to get to the apartment doorknob, Huggins said, and he slowly raised his hands up to show that he had no weapon.

“The officers claim they took this as an aggressive act and responded by grabbing Huggins, with Kolaskey pointing a Taser, which looks similar to a handgun, at him and threatened to shoot,” the lawsuit states. “Huggins was handcuffed on the landing outside his apartment. He was directed to sit.

“While in that position, Kolaskey kicked Huggins in the mouth, although Kolaskey denied intentionally causing his boot to come into contact with Huggins’ mouth.”

Huggins said in an interview that the kick was in reaction to him questioning why one of the officers had drawn his service weapon from its holster.

“They took us down really hard,” Rylee, Huggins’ roommate, said in an interview. “The police report says Nebraska was screaming and yelling and resisting.

“That’s not true. That was me all the way. I was screaming over and over and over again, ‘I don’t consent to search and seizure.’ Nebraska kept quiet.”

Police handcuffed both men, then took them downstairs to a patrol car while other officers entered the apartment and cleared it out, even though no criminal activity was discovered, the lawsuit says.

The police reports from that night say officers struggled with Huggins and Rylee on the landing and eventually took Huggins to the ground. The police say both men smelled of alcohol and that, while they were in the back seat of the patrol car, people began to gather and “were directing challenges to fight” with officers.

One police report from Cpl. Gilbert Farrulla says officers did not actually enter the apartment because of “the large, hostile crowd that was forming,” and that “due to officer safety concerns” police decided to relocate to a park-and-ride lot about a mile away.

There, police interviewed and recorded statements from Huggins and Rylee under a Rocklin police use-of-force policy that calls for a police supervisor to respond when force is used.

Parking lot questioning

The policy, obtained by The Sacramento Bee, directs police to determine if a suspect may later sue the department, to “obtain the basic facts from the involved officers” and record an interview with the suspect and preserve the recording “until all potential for civil litigation has expired.” The policy mandates that the contents of the interviews “should not be summarized or included in any related charges. The fact that a recorded interview was conducted should be documented in a property or other report.”

Katz, Huggins’ lawyer and a specialist in police use-of-force cases, said he has never heard of such a policy, and that the “interrogation” in the parking lot terrified Huggins.

“While there, the officers told Huggins what they expected him to say,” the lawsuit states. “Huggins was in fear for his life. Corporal Farrulla then turned on a tape recorder and Huggins attempted to follow what he understood his script was supposed to be as to the incident.

“Had he been asked to, Huggins would likely have confessed to the Lindbergh kidnapping, as he was in such fear. In particular, Huggins was told to say that he had consumed a significant quantity of alcohol and that had affected his actions.

“Huggins was also advised to say that Officer Kolaskey’s kick to his mouth had been ‘accidental.’ ”

Huggins and Rylee said in separate interviews that they were never read their Miranda rights or asked to waive them for the parking lot interrogations.

“After they put us in the car, Nebraska asked, ‘Are you going to read my rights?’ ” Rylee said. “One of the cops replied, ‘Am I asking you any questions?’

“Our rights were never given to us, even when they did question us. Never.”

They were at the deserted, dark parking lot about 30 to 40 minutes, and Huggins said he was never told why he was being arrested, even after he was taken to jail. Police reports dispute that claim, but the reports do not indicate that either man was read his Miranda rights. They specifically state that neither was read his rights in the parking lot prior to being interviewed and that the questioning was “for administrative purposes only.”

The department contends that its use-of-force policy “is consistent with law enforcement agencies throughout California” and constantly reviewed.

Huggins ended up in jail for 23 hours, where an intake form shows he was not placed in a sobering cell, which is routine for suspects believed to be intoxicated.

Charges against both Huggins and Rylee, 21, from Brentwood, were later dropped by the Placer County District Attorney’s Office.

A text from the coach

But Huggins’ troubles were not over.

When he was released from jail in the middle of the next night following his arrest, the lawsuit says, Huggins retrieved his cellphone and found a text message to call football coach Ben Noonan. He also found an email Noonan sent the team the previous afternoon notifying players that “one of your (now former) teammates was involved in a police incident.”

That was how Huggins says he learned he had been kicked off the team. He said he called his coach and tried to tell his side of the story, but that Noonan hung up on him.

His mother also called the coach, asking, “What happened to innocent until proven guilty?” she said.

Noonan was in his first year coaching at Sierra College. She said he told her he had held a team meeting three weeks before the incident and told the players to be respectful if they have any contact with police officers, Dobson said.

She said Noonan also told her he had been informed that her son was drunk and was aggressive with the officers, which she told him was impossible. “I’m new here,” Dobson said the coach told her, “and it’s a good situation, and I knew they were going to be watching how I handled the situation.”

Noonan responded to requests for comment from The Bee with an email to which he attached Sierra College’s student-athlete code of conduct.

“Should students choose to not abide by the code, they are subject to dismissal from athletic teams,” Noonan wrote. “The player in question was dismissed from the team because he broke the Code of Conduct, nothing more.”

Noonan did not elaborate, and Sierra College spokeswoman Sue Michaels said the coach’s decision had nothing to do with Huggins’ arrest.

“We have an athletic code of conduct, and the players had been warned that they had to adhere strictly to that,” Michaels said. “He broke the rules and was kicked off the team. It had nothing to do with the Rocklin Police Department.”

Michaels added that being disruptive and disrespectful to the other apartment dwellers was how Huggins broke the rules. She would not be more specific.

The Police Department said the allegation that police contacted the coach is something it was not aware of before the suit, and that the matter is being reviewed.

Huggins said officers at the scene specifically asked him, “Do you play football?” after he was arrested. Rylee, the swimmer, was not asked about athletics.

“I was a little insulted because I’m a collegiate swimmer, and they don’t ask me,” said Rylee. He was allowed to remain on the swim team. Rylee added that he went to Noonan to plead for Huggins’ reinstatement, arguing that his roommate had done nothing wrong.

“Then why did the police tell me different?” Rylee said Noonan asked him.

Today, both students have moved on.

Rylee is planning to attend California State University, Sacramento, in the fall, and Huggins is still pursuing his football career. After he was kicked off the team at Sierra College, he said he called the coach at Sacramento City College, told him the entire story and was accepted as a player there.

He still hopes to play well enough to draw the interest of a major college program, Huggins said, and eventually earn his degree.

He’s given up on his dream of studying criminal justice at a university, and he isn’t sure what he’ll do instead.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189

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