Settlement in flashlight beating case by Sacramento deputy
In another setback for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, the county has agreed to pay $150,000 to settle an excessive-force complaint that alleges a suspect was needlessly beaten by a deputy wielding a flashlight.
The settlement stems from a July 2015 lawsuit filed by Rocklin resident Mickey Donohue, whose arrest in September 2014 was captured on Sheriff’s Department dashboard cameras and showed deputies beating Donohue after he was pulled over on suspicion of driving a stolen car.
According to a settlement agreement obtained by The Sacramento Bee from Donohue attorney Mark Merin, the county agreed to settle the lawsuit without either side admitting fault or wrongdoing, and the agreement notes that liability in the incident remains in dispute.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said he was not free to comment because the department does not consider the case settled.
A notice of settlement in the case was filed in U.S. District Court on May 6 stating that all parties involved “have agreed to the terms of a settlement completely resolving this matter.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Merin said Wednesday when told the department claims there is no settlement. “That’s weird. I’ve received the check. There’s nothing more for me to do.”
One of the deputies who is seen on camera beating Donohue is Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer, who has been the subject of at least three excessive-force lawsuits alleging he beat suspects with his department-issued flashlight.
The settlement could renew questions about excessive-force complaints against the Sheriff’s Department. It may also pose political challenges for Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Ami Bera for the 7th Congressional District seat. Bera’s campaign had no comment Wednesday on the issue.
Jones already faces criticism in the wake of a May 17 jury verdict that awarded $3.6 million in damages to four female deputies who claimed they suffered retaliation by their superiors for speaking out against discrimination and preferential treatment in the department.
Jones said last week that the department “strongly disagrees with the verdict” and that the county will explore appealing it.
Bera also faces difficulty in his bid for re-election in the district, which stretches from Elk Grove to Folsom. Bera won the seat narrowly in 2012 and 2014. His father, Babulal Bera, pleaded guilty May 10 to two counts of election fraud arising out of more than $268,000 in donations he directed to his son mostly through straw donors to avoid campaign finance limits.
Ami Bera has said he knew nothing about the kickback scheme, and federal authorities say they have no evidence to the contrary.
The settlement in the Donohue beating case, which was obtained from Merin, calls for the dismissal of the lawsuit against the county. Donohue originally drafted the lawsuit himself as a hand-written document filed in federal court from his cell at Corcoran State Prison, where he is serving a six-year term for car theft, fleeing an officer and drug possession.
Donohue, a career criminal who had just been released from a prison stint for robbery and grand theft, claimed in the suit that deputies struck him repeatedly after pulling him over in a stolen car.
He claimed he was not resisting and begged, “Please, please stop.”
The dashboard camera videos, obtained by The Bee last September, appear to show deputies hitting and punching Donohue as he sits seat-belted in the car crying out in pain.
Donohue sued four deputies, including Pfeifer, who is named in the suit as the deputy who “beat me in the head and face with a big metal flashlight.”
Donohue also alleged that Deputy Jack Noble punched him and that after the beating stopped he heard them speaking to each other.
“Both officers that beat me were talking to each other and said, ‘I think we screwed up,’ ” his lawsuit stated.
“Don’t worry, it will be OK,” the lawsuit quotes Pfeifer as saying to Noble.
Donohue’s lawsuit sought $813,264 in damages for pain and suffering and $12,989 for a hospital bill.
Merin took over the case as Donohue’s attorney in September.
“This is a case that turns squarely on the fact there was dash-camera footage available,” he said in a telephone interview. “It shows the importance of this type of evidence instead of a he-said-she-said standoff. That’s why we were able to settle at a fairly early stage.
“Here we have an officer out of control and another who stepped up while his partner was catching his breath and punched my client in the face.”
Merin said he was informed by letter from the department that its internal investigation did not sustain the claims by Donohue.
“Both Pfeifer and Noble were exonerated of discourteous treatment and excessive force,” Merin said. “If they looked at the video footage and think that’s fine, I guess you could say this is yet another indication of Sheriff Jones’ lack of leadership.”
Pfeifer, a decorated 14-year veteran of the department, has been sued three times in cases alleging he beat suspects with his flashlight.
The first incident resulted in a $20,000 settlement with a 25-year-old woman who claimed deputies broke up a loud party at an Antelope home by tackling and dragging her, then pepper-spraying her. The woman alleged that Pfeifer hit her on the legs with his flashlight as he was trying to get her into the back of his patrol car.
The woman, Solomia Treshchuk, was charged with resisting arrest and went to trial in Sacramento Superior Court in June 2008.
Pfeifer testified in the case, telling the jury, “I used my flashlight, and I struck her in the lower portion of her legs, in the calf area, in order to overcome her resistance and get her to comply.”
The jury could not agree on a verdict, and prosecutors declined to retry the case.
Pfeifer also was sued in September by Carmichael resident John Reyes, who alleged that Pfeifer accosted him in December 2014 outside a Starbucks on Fair Oaks Boulevard.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by attorney Stewart Katz, alleges that Pfeifer beat Reyes with his flashlight, used a stun gun on him and hit him with pepper spray.
Reyes, who was on probation at the time and has a lengthy history of arrests for drug and other nonviolent crimes, said he was attacked after asking the deputy to move his car from blocking an intersection he was trying to cross on foot.
Reyes said he was accosted after cursing at the deputy. The incident was captured on cellphone video by bystanders.
That lawsuit is pending, and the department said last fall that Pfeifer was placed on paid leave while internal affairs detectives investigated the incident. Pfeifer subsequently returned to duty and became a detective in the department’s centralized investigations division, where he is today.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189