A deputy policing the town of Windsor slammed a man face-first into the ground and then claimed he was resisting arrest, a federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
A Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy in the town of Windsor escalated a welfare check last summer, slamming a compliant man face-first into the ground and then recommending charges of resisting arrest to cover up his excessive force, a federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges.
Deputy Travis Perkins' body camera captured the July 9 arrest of 34-year-old La'Marcus McDonald. The county has refused to make the footage public despite state law and Sheriff's Office protocol indicating it should be released.
"I think the sheriff is hiding incidents of this nature by refusing to release the video," said attorney Reed Kathrein, who specializes in securities fraud cases but is representing McDonald in part because he's known him since childhood.
The lawsuit reaches far beyond McDonald's arrest, alleging a pattern of constitutional violations by Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies. It references several high-profile cases, including the 2013 killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez and the more recent slaying of David Ward.
"It's clear that the community has, over the last three decades, tried to get closer oversight and supervision, and supervisors and the sheriff have resisted," Kathrein said. "We're going directly after the whole pattern and practice. If necessary, once we get discovery and see how bad it is, we'll determine whether or not they need some sort of oversight."
A spokesman for the Sheriff's Office declined to comment on McDonald's case. McDonald also declined to speak directly to the press.
Kathrein said the lawsuit's allegations are based on McDonald's account, police reports on the arrest and Kathrein's viewing of the body camera video, which authorities allowed him and McDonald to see but have not otherwise released.
Welfare Check Leads to Serious Injury
McDonald, a FedEx employee, was in the process of being evicted and hadn't yet found a new home. On the evening of July 9, after having some tequila, he was sleeping in a friend's car parked near 7890 Bell Road in Windsor.
A passerby noticed the driver's side door of the car was open and, suspecting the sleeping McDonald inside may be overdosing, called 911.
Deputy Perkins arrived at the car, with an ambulance following behind him. He eventually roused McDonald and asked him if he'd taken any drugs. McDonald said he had not, but said he had been drinking.
"[McDonald] pleaded with Deputy Sheriff Perkins that he had not done anything wrong and was not causing any trouble," the lawsuit said.
Perkins told McDonald to get out of the car and grabbed his right arm, beginning to try to handcuff him. There was no probable cause to arrest or detain McDonald, Kathrein said.
McDonald "without warning began to spin his upper body," Perkins wrote in a police report, adding that McDonald "tensed up his body and attempted to pull his right arm out of my grasp."
McDonald was disoriented and confused, according to the lawsuit, and Perkins never told him that he was under arrest.
"La'Marcus was passive. He was not aggressive. He was intoxicated and trying to be as calm as possible following the policeman's orders," Kathrein said.
Perkins was aggressive, Kathrein said, and shouted an obscenity at McDonald before throwing him to the ground face-first, knocking him unconscious, breaking two teeth and dislodging a third.
Paramedics treated McDonald at the scene and then took him to Sutter Hospital.
"Very nice 34-year-old brought here by police for medical clearance after they tackled him and forced his head into the ground," an emergency room record says.
The lawsuit alleges Sheriff's Deputy Gregory Clegg accompanied McDonald to the hospital and denied him water while he was handcuffed to a bed. Sheriff's Sgt. Brent Kidder signed off on a police report recommending McDonald be charged with resisting arrest.
The District Attorney declined to pursue those charges a few days later, after viewing the body camera footage, according to Kathrein.
Sheriff's deputies had the car McDonald was sleeping in towed, for a cost of $3,475. The car remains impounded due to an inability to pay those fees, according to the lawsuit.
McDonald's arrest and injury began over a year ago — Kathrein has been working since then to obtain the body camera video and other information about the case.
Last July, county counsel argued that the Sheriff would not release body camera footage because it was related to an investigation.
However, a new state law had just taken effect July 1 requiring law enforcement agencies to release body camera and other videos within 45 days that capture police shootings or other so-called critical incidents. The law defines a critical incident as one "in which the use of force by a peace officer or custodial officer resulted in death or in great bodily injury."
What constitutes "great bodily injury" is not clearly defined in that or other relatively recent state laws aimed at greater transparency when law enforcement officers injure or kill people.
Some agencies have determined injuries that did not result in a three or more days of hospitalization are exempt.
However, most law enforcement agencies, including the Sonoma County Sheriff, use the state's definition of serious bodily injury — "a bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member or organ."
Sonoma Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia confirmed that the office uses that definition.
McDonald suffered a concussion, significant injury to three front teeth and lost consciousness, according to Kathrein. The lawsuit says body camera footage shows McDonald was clearly knocked out after Perkins slammed him face-first into the ground.
Despite this, the Sheriff's Office and Sonoma County Counsel have disputed that McDonald's injuries were serious enough to require disclosure.
"We will have to disagree about the definition of 'great bodily injury,'" County Counsel wrote to Kathrein last Friday. "The Sheriff's Office continues to believe that Mr. McDonald's injuries were not 'great bodily injury.'"
The County Counsel's Office did not respond to requests for comment.