Federal Lawsuit Against Pasadena Filed in Christopher Ballew Case

Suit names City, Mayor, City Manager, Police Chief and numerous Officers as defendants, charges battery, false arrest and imprisonment

Published : Wednesday, January 31, 2018 | 6:33 AM

Federal Lawsuit Against Pasadena Filed in Christopher Ballew Case

[Updated]   Pasadena civil rights attorney John Burton filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Pasadena last Friday on behalf of motorist Christopher Ballew, who suffered multiple injuries, including a broken leg, during a violent traffic stop by Pasadena police in November of 2017. Ballew was arrested but the District Attorney declined to file any charges against him.

The lawsuit, filed January 26 in U.S. District Court, names the City of Pasadena, the Pasadena Police Department, Mayor Terry Tornek, City Manager Steve Mermell, Chief Of Police Phillip A. [sic] Sanchez, and Pasadena Police Officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza among the defendants, and charges violations of the California Civil Code, including battery, false arrest and imprisonment.

Burton is seeking a jury trial for the case.

Ballew’s original December, 2017 claim against the City, a legal step necessary before filing Superior Court lawsuits but not federal ones, was rejected by the City on January 5.

City of Pasadena spokesperson William Boyer confirmed late Tuesday that the City had been served with the lawsuit on Monday, and was in possession of it. However, since the case is now pending litigation, Boyer said he was unable to comment further.

Cellphone video of the arrest of Ballew, 21, swept across news media in December and ultimately was seen millions of times around the globe. The graphic images of what some activists have described as a Rodney King-like beating of the young black Altadenan galvanized protests at City meetings.

The City responded to declare that an active investigation into the incident is underway, and the two officers remain on duty.

In a first, City Manager Steve Mermell also responded by publicly releasing police patrol car and body worn camera videos of the incident.

“I believe doing so is in the best interest of the City and that of the public,” Mermell said at the time.

A c0alition of local groups, including the Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police (CICOPP), the ACLU of Southern California, and Pasadenans Organizing for Progress, asked the City Council to mandate prompt, independent investigations of Pasadena’s police department’s use of force incidents resulting in injury or death, including what the coalition referred to as “the beating of Ballew;” adopt an independent police auditor, and that they direct Chief Sanchez to “secure maximum discipline” of the officers involved in the incident.

In an interview Tuesday, attorney Burton claimed that the officers were part of a gang task force, saying “I think the main difference between this case and what I would call more garden variety excessive force false arrest case is that we’re highlighting, and hoping to hold the City responsible for, what I think are two of the more notable aspects of this case.”

“Number one,” said Burton, “is the fact that they were dispatching these task force officers … that went into the Northwest part of Pasadena, spilling into Altadena, where this [incident] happened, with instructions to pull over people who they thought might have some relationship with gang activity. Which turned out just to be an invitation to racial profiling. Chris Ballew has absolutely nothing to do with gangs and was pulled over. I’m sure that was what motivated them. This was really where the racial profiling comes into police work.”

Burton continued, “People who are African-American, especially males, but not exclusively males, just get contacted a lot more by the police who are functioning with really backward, false stereotypes. So we’re focused on that element and the racial aspect of this incident, “ said Burton.

Burton added, “Those of us who represent plaintiffs in damages lawsuits always hope that by making entities and companies and people take responsibility for their actions that who would otherwise not be held accountable, that in the long term, it will have a positive effect and this is an example of that.”

Burton, an Altadena resident, said he takes the case personally.

“I live in Altadena, I grew up in Pasadena, I drive by this location all the time,” he said. “My own daughter was stopped at the same corner—she’s part African-American—just a couple of weeks ago. And not beaten up, but made her sit on the curb and patted down and so on by the same operation. So this is very personal to me.”

The suit asks for general and compensatory damages in an amount according to proof; Special damages in an amount according to proof; exemplary and punitive damages against each individual defendant, not against the City or the Pasadena Police Department, in an amount according to proof; and statutory damages, along with the costs of the suit, including attorneys’ fees.

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