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Court Rules Racial Discrimination Claim Against City Can Move Forward in Ballew Case

Published on Friday, December 9, 2022 | 6:01 am
Screengrabs from a passerby’s cellphone video during the violent November 9, 2017 arrest of Altadenan Christopher Ballew by Pasadena police officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan. Ballew suffered a broken leg, facial injuries and gashes on his legs. Ballew was never charged with having committed a crime.

A federal judge has ruled that the racial discrimination claim in a lawsuit filed by a man who suffered multiple injuries at the hands of two Pasadena police officers at an Altadena gas station can proceed. 

On Nov. 9, 2017, former John Muir High School basketball player Christopher Ballew was arrested for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer at a station on Fair Oaks Avenue and Woodbury Road by officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan. The officers said they made a U-turn and followed Ballew into the gas station for driving without a front license plate and excessive window tinting on his late-model Mercedes.

After they confronted Ballew, the incident spiraled out of control.

In cellphone video that emerged later, Ballew, then 21, can be seen wrestling with Esparza and Lujan for control of a police baton, and then being forced to the ground, punched and struck repeatedly with the metal baton while he shouted at the officers to stop as they overpowered him and handcuffed him on the ground.

Ballew was struck on the head several times with fists and on the legs with the metal baton. His head was slammed into the asphalt.  He suffered a broken fibula, bloody facial injuries, and deep gashes on his legs.

Local civil rights attorney John Burton filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ballew in January 2018 against both officers, their supervisor, Sergeant Timothy Bundy, and former Chief of Police Philip Sanchez, as well as the city itself.

On Nov. 23, Judge Fernando M. Olguin, responding to a motion for summary judgment filed by the City of Pasadena and the other defendants, ruled that there are triable issues, thereby allowing portions of the case to proceed.

“Here, the totality of relevant facts – which include the traffic stop itself, the officers’ testimony, and the expert testimony – support plaintiff’s contention that Esparza and Lujan stopped him, at least in part, because of his race,” according to an order signed by Judge Olguin.

Treating a suspect differently based on race is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans and slaves who had been emancipated after the American Civil War, under the phrase “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”

Olguin’s order also says the officers acted unlawfully and violated Ballew’s Fourth Amendment rights. 

“In any event, it is clear that Lujan’s and Esparza’s alleged conduct under these circumstances was unlawful, as there is a body of relevant case law sufficient to “put a prudent officer on notice that baton strikes, punches, and other such uses of force against a person who is suspected of minor non-jailable infractions, poses little or no risk to others or police officers, and offers minimal or no resistance, violates that person’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of excessive force, especially when no warning is given and less intrusive forms of force are available.”

Pasadena Now reached out to the Pasadena Police Department initially for comment on the five-year anniversary of the case before learning of the recent ruling. A department spokesperson declined to comment due to the pending litigation.

Attorney Burton said Wednesday “the Court has ruled that Pasadena must stand trial on its outrageous and unconstitutional practice of sending gang officers into Northwest Pasadena and Altadena targeting black and Latino motorists and that Chris Ballew was savagely beaten as a result.”

“Although every justification for these discriminatory and violent actions was rejected by the federal judge, the two involved officers were cleared of misconduct by the Pasadena Police Department [and] remain on the streets.”

Former Police Chief John Perez told Pasadena Now several years ago that since the incident, the department has instituted training on implicit bias and officers consult with a psychologist that explains what goes on in the brain during use-of-force incidents. 

Officers are now required to take a procedural justice course.

Two of those classes were held for community members. Fifteen to 20 people showed up to those events. 

The incident began when police heading north into Altadena shined a spotlight into the car Ballew was driving. 

After they shined the spotlight on the car, the officers made a U-turn to stop the car due to a tinted windshield. 

They eventually pulled in behind the car at a Mobile gas station on Fair Oaks Avenue and Woodbury Road.

That gas station became famous several weeks ago for selling a winning Powerball ticket.

But on this night, it gained infamy. 

A passerby recorded police officers striking the former John Muir High School basketball standout with police batons, fists and slamming his head into the asphalt. 

At one point Ballew is seen wrestling with the two officers for control of a police baton, and then being forced to the ground, punched and struck with the baton while simultaneously shouting at the officers to stop, as they overpower him and begin to handcuff him on the ground.

According to Ballew, his leg was broken by one or both of the baton strikes to his right leg.

After the incident happened police alleged that Ballew refused to comply with the orders of the officers.

Soon after the video spread throughout the community, the NAACP held a community meeting. That same night at a City Council meeting in a display of transparency, then-City Manager Steve Mermell announced that he told the police chief to make all video footage in the matter public. 

The 16-member Altadena Town Council, which meets monthly, unanimously voted to send a letter then-Mayor Terry Tornek demanding that Lujan and Esparza not be allowed to patrol inside Altadena, despite decades of cooperation between the neighboring areas.

“I have yet to talk to one person who has seen the video who does not believe there was excessive use of force on the part of the police officers,” Altadena Town Council Chairman Okorie Ezieme told the Pasadena Weekly in 2018.

An investigation cleared Esparza and Zachary in 2021. 

“This is by far the most difficult decision I have made since I became police chief,” then-Police Chief John Perez told Pasadena Now after he announced the results of the administrative investigation.

At one point during the incident, Ballew grabbed an officer’s baton. Esparza pulled out his gun as Lujan and Ballew struggled for the baton until Ballew released it after he was struck by Lujan. 

“When he [Lujan] was holding me down at the back of my neck, I was wondering if I was going to die,” Ballew told the Pasadena Weekly in December 2017. “I kept thinking about the worst thing they could do next and they kept doing it. I could have died. He [Esparza] pulled out the gun, but he didn’t pull the trigger.”

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