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Police dust-up with family a sizable can of worms

Department of Justice report won't be struck from case against cops

Attorneys for the City of San Diego are trying to put distance between the police department and a Department of Justice report that found San Diego police officers are more apt to stop Hispanic and African-American drivers during traffic stops and more likely to use force than officers in similar-sized cities.

But despite their best efforts, in December 2015 U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel rejected a San Diego city attorneys’ motion to omit any mention of the report in a complaint filed by a family that claims police officers improperly used force against members of a City Heights family during a mistaken robbery.

The Incident

On July 29, 2014, brothers Luis and Diego Lobaton were using their key to open the front door to their family-owned cell-phone store, where the family was also living, when two police officers approached them and followed them inside the store.

As reported by the Voice of San Diego, four more officers approached and a scuffle ensued. Video footage obtained from the store's security cameras showed officers punching Luis Lobaton several times upon entering the store and then grabbing his mother, Hedy, by her neck and forcing her to the ground, all while her three-year-old son was standing a few feet away.

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Officers Nathan Parga, Kelvin Lujan, Sam Ueler, and Ali Bakhshi later arrested Hedy and Luis Lobaton. They charged Luis with obstructing a peace officer but declined to file charges against Hedy Lobaton.

After the incident, the officers involved provided sworn statements. Their recollection, according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by the family, differed from what the video footage showed.

Damning allegations

In their lawsuit, attorneys for the Lobaton family accused the San Diego Police Department of poor supervision and a tendency to cover up criminal misconduct committed by police officers. To prove their point, attorneys mentioned a March 2015 study from the Department of Justice that identified "gaps" in police procedure.

"The report identifies a number of deficiencies in recruiting practices, supervision and training of officers, accountability systems, and mechanisms for reviewing citizen complaints and leadership," reads a March 2015 Department of Justice press release. "The assessment recommends a comprehensive approach to all aspects of policing that can help prevent misconduct. This includes the training and supervision of officers, the recruitment and selection of new officers, accountability mechanisms, internal investigations and disciplinary practices.

The findings included data suggesting that Hispanic and African-American drivers were involved in a disproportionate amount of traffic stops as compared to white drivers. In addition, San Diego's police officers appeared more willing to use force and were involved in more police shootings than officers in similarly sized cities.

Lobaton's attorneys were quick to use the report to show San Diego's police department has “policies, customs, or usages that have resulted in the inadequate hiring, training, and supervision of officers, including a failure to properly investigate citizen complaints and discipline offending officers.”

And, as seen in the disparities between the video footage and the statements that officers gave after the incident, attorneys for the Lobaton family hoped to demonstrate a “culture of coverup” in San Diego's police department and a willingness to "falsify their official reports….”

"Anti-San Diego Police Department tirade"?

But in a 2015 court filing, San Diego city attorneys tried to get away from the Department of Justice report by saying that the findings were not pertinent to the Lobaton lawsuit.

In their motion to exclude mention of the report, San Diego city attorneys characterized Lobaton's complaint as “essentially an anti-San Diego Police Department tirade with no substantive allegations against any particular defendant.”

Judge Curiel rejected their argument and their motion to strike the mention of the Department of Justice's findings.

"...[T]he Court finds that Defendants have failed to establish that these portions of the amended complaint 'have no possible relation or logical connection' to the subject matter of this case. Plaintiffs have made colorable arguments that the allegations in the contested paragraphs could have some relevance to their [claims] that the City of San Diego’s policies, customs, or usages were the moving force behind the violation of their constitutional rights."

The case will move to the discovery phase of the trial. A civil case management conference is set for May 13, 2016.

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Attorneys for the City of San Diego are trying to put distance between the police department and a Department of Justice report that found San Diego police officers are more apt to stop Hispanic and African-American drivers during traffic stops and more likely to use force than officers in similar-sized cities.

But despite their best efforts, in December 2015 U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel rejected a San Diego city attorneys’ motion to omit any mention of the report in a complaint filed by a family that claims police officers improperly used force against members of a City Heights family during a mistaken robbery.

The Incident

On July 29, 2014, brothers Luis and Diego Lobaton were using their key to open the front door to their family-owned cell-phone store, where the family was also living, when two police officers approached them and followed them inside the store.

As reported by the Voice of San Diego, four more officers approached and a scuffle ensued. Video footage obtained from the store's security cameras showed officers punching Luis Lobaton several times upon entering the store and then grabbing his mother, Hedy, by her neck and forcing her to the ground, all while her three-year-old son was standing a few feet away.

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Officers Nathan Parga, Kelvin Lujan, Sam Ueler, and Ali Bakhshi later arrested Hedy and Luis Lobaton. They charged Luis with obstructing a peace officer but declined to file charges against Hedy Lobaton.

After the incident, the officers involved provided sworn statements. Their recollection, according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by the family, differed from what the video footage showed.

Damning allegations

In their lawsuit, attorneys for the Lobaton family accused the San Diego Police Department of poor supervision and a tendency to cover up criminal misconduct committed by police officers. To prove their point, attorneys mentioned a March 2015 study from the Department of Justice that identified "gaps" in police procedure.

"The report identifies a number of deficiencies in recruiting practices, supervision and training of officers, accountability systems, and mechanisms for reviewing citizen complaints and leadership," reads a March 2015 Department of Justice press release. "The assessment recommends a comprehensive approach to all aspects of policing that can help prevent misconduct. This includes the training and supervision of officers, the recruitment and selection of new officers, accountability mechanisms, internal investigations and disciplinary practices.

The findings included data suggesting that Hispanic and African-American drivers were involved in a disproportionate amount of traffic stops as compared to white drivers. In addition, San Diego's police officers appeared more willing to use force and were involved in more police shootings than officers in similarly sized cities.

Lobaton's attorneys were quick to use the report to show San Diego's police department has “policies, customs, or usages that have resulted in the inadequate hiring, training, and supervision of officers, including a failure to properly investigate citizen complaints and discipline offending officers.”

And, as seen in the disparities between the video footage and the statements that officers gave after the incident, attorneys for the Lobaton family hoped to demonstrate a “culture of coverup” in San Diego's police department and a willingness to "falsify their official reports….”

"Anti-San Diego Police Department tirade"?

But in a 2015 court filing, San Diego city attorneys tried to get away from the Department of Justice report by saying that the findings were not pertinent to the Lobaton lawsuit.

In their motion to exclude mention of the report, San Diego city attorneys characterized Lobaton's complaint as “essentially an anti-San Diego Police Department tirade with no substantive allegations against any particular defendant.”

Judge Curiel rejected their argument and their motion to strike the mention of the Department of Justice's findings.

"...[T]he Court finds that Defendants have failed to establish that these portions of the amended complaint 'have no possible relation or logical connection' to the subject matter of this case. Plaintiffs have made colorable arguments that the allegations in the contested paragraphs could have some relevance to their [claims] that the City of San Diego’s policies, customs, or usages were the moving force behind the violation of their constitutional rights."

The case will move to the discovery phase of the trial. A civil case management conference is set for May 13, 2016.

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