The family of a man left with the mental capacity of a preschooler after a March encounter with Sacramento police has filed an excessive force lawsuit against the city.
The suit stems from a March 6 incident in which police responded to the parking lot of the Rite Aid in the 1100 block of Alhambra Boulevard, where John Hernandez, 34, was reported to be belligerent and attempting to fight passers-by.
The suit alleges that after a foot chase, officers used their Tasers “upwards of nine” times on Hernandez, hit him repeatedly in the back and neck with batons and used their body weight to hold him down.
“This person was perfectly healthy when he came into contact with police,” said attorney John Burris, who filed the federal suit Friday on behalf of the the wife and 8-year-old daughter of Hernandez. “He came away with significant brain damage.”
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Sacramento city spokeswoman Linda Tucker said the city had not yet seen the suit and could not comment.
On that March afternoon, a responding officer found Hernandez sitting on the curb, based on police accounts and video footage released by the city. Hernandez fled when a second officer arrived and ran inside a nearby Sutter medical facility. Officers pursued Hernandez and caught him in a narrow back hall, where three officers initially attempted to restrain him.
The officers tackled Hernandez and were met with “violent resistance,” according to a recent report by the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability, which reviewed the incident.
Four additional officers soon arrived and attempted to restrain Hernandez during a confrontation that lasted three and a half minutes, according to the OPSA report.
Officers eventually handcuffed Hernandez and said he was alert and conscious when he was detained, but he quickly stopped breathing and became unresponsive.
Police called for medical aid and paramedics administered CPR for about 25 minutes. Medical records showed he was without oxygen for about 10 minutes, leaving him with severe brain damage, kidney failure and other injuries.
“There is no possible legal justification for the force used on Mr. Hernandez, who was upon first contact with officers, at best, loitering and/or resisting arrest, both very minor misdemeanors. As a result of this incident of unwarranted and egregious excessive force, Mr. Hernandez’s life as a functioning person essentially ended,” the suit reads.
Police released video and audio of some of the incident, but said there was no video from inside the Sutter facility when Hernandez stopped breathing. The city report said the department “did not find any policy violations by the involved officers,” in the incident.
Police said in an April statement that Hernandez had “no indication of significant trauma or injury” and that he had “superficial abrasions only.” The department also said Hernandez had methamphetamine in his system during the incident.
The civil rights suit also alleges that the department has an “entrenched culture, policy or practice of promoting, tolerating and/or ratifying with deliberate indifference, the use of excessive force.” Burris sued the city last year on behalf of the father of Joseph Mann, a mentally ill black man shot by police in the North Sacramento area.
After the incident, Hernandez was in a coma for days, and initially doctors told family they needed to consider removing life support because he would likely remain catatonic. However, he regained consciousness and “slowly began to recover a portion of his pre-existing physical health and slowly began to move independently, eventually regaining the ability to breathe, walk and eat unassisted over the next few months,” the suit said.
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Hernandez now has the mental capacity of a young child, said his mother, Debbie Hernandez, 62, who is currently his full-time caretaker.
She said her son requires 24-hour supervision and help with basic activities, as well as ongoing physical, speech and occupational therapy. Everyday, she helps him shower, dress and eat. Once an active skateboarder with a job at a car wash, she said, Hernandez now spends his days listening to music and watching television.
She said her son had problems with drugs in the past, but was never violent. She is worried what will happen when she is unable to provide care.
“These are supposed to be my golden years … I love him to death and I’m glad I have him, (but) it’s stressful,” she said. “It’s worse than a wrongful death.”