By Denny Walsh and Melody Gutierrez
A civil rights lawsuit was filed today in Sacramento federal court on behalf of five men who were arrested two years ago by a Twin Rivers police officer for what they say was no apparent reason. The plaintiffs also say that later at the police station three of them were brutally choked by another Twin Rivers officer before they were taken to the Sacramento Main Jail and booked.
On Sept. 17, 2010, Officer Taras Chernyy approached four of the men while they were sitting peacefully in a car on a North Highlands street and, when one of them pressed the officer on what they had done to deserve his attention, Chernyy pulled his service revolver and summoned a small army of officers from three departments, who responded with guns drawn, according to the suit filed by Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz.
At the police station, Officer Branche Smith flew into a tirade because the handcuffed men questioned the validity of their arrests, and he used both hands to choke Andrew Latshaw, the most verbal of the four, Demonte Kelly and Austin Westall, the civil suit charges. Branche then pointed a Taser gun at Westall's chest and threatened to "light you up" if Westall didn't "stop shaking."
Smith is facing misdemeanor criminal charges in connection with the incident.
"These actions took place within the view of nearly half of the Twin Rivers Police Department's officers," the suit alleges. "None of the officers took any steps to intervene or protect the plaintiffs."
The district attorney's office declined to bring charges against any of the five arrestees on a long list of suspected crimes authored by the officers.
Christopher Breck, Twin Rivers police chief at the time of the incident, has been on paid administrative leave since November.
In addition to Latshaw, Kelly and Westall, plaintiffs include Jovon Kelly and Andrew Gutierrez, who was not in the car but asleep in a nearby house when the police invasion started. Also a .plaintiff is Wendy Segarra, who owns the car the four were in and is the mother of Westall's girlfriend. She was not at the scene of the arrests and had loaned Westall the car, which was impounded.
Named as defendants are Breck; Smith; Chernyy; Twin Rivers Sgt. Chue Lor and Officers Anthony Ruiz and Emily Kelly, who were at the scene of the arrests; Frank Porter, former Twin Rivers Unified School District superintendent, and Ziggy Robeson, the district's deputy superintendent. The latter two and Breck are accused of fostering a culture that encouraged abuses of police powers and allowed them to go unpunished.
The suit alleges multiple constitutional violations, including unreasonable seizure, excessive force, derelict supervision and training, and unlawful taking of the car.
"Unfortunately," the suit states, "these five plaintiffs are still saddled by the (state) Department of Justice records, which reflect their arrests on what on the face seem to be serious felonies....These computer entries continue to cause great difficulties for plaintiffs in both employment pursuits and in seeking further education."