Hayward resident Fernando Miguel Soria is suing Alameda County and four former sheriff’s deputies in federal district court for allegedly violating his civil rights while he was a pretrial detainee in 2016 at Santa Rita jail, which is managed and staffed by sheriff’s office deputies. While on duty, the former deputies allegedly “used unwarranted and excessive force” against Soria and “conspired and did cause [him] to be assaulted with feces and urine on several occasions,” according to the lawsuit.
Soria’s lawyer, Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, along with two associate attorneys, DeWitt Lacy and K. Chike Odiwe, filed suit on October 8 alleging that the former deputies, county policymakers and supervisors violated Soria’s protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The suit alleges that the deputies infringed upon Soria’s Eighth Amendment right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment and that the “unwarranted and excessive force” used against him violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Additionally, the suit alleges that because Soria was not kept free of harm while in government custody, his due process rights, pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment, were breached.
According to attorney Lacy, over four months, Soria was “gassed” at least seven or eight times. In jail parlance, “gassing” means mixing solid and liquid human waste together in a container, such as a plastic shampoo bottle or milk carton, and dousing someone with its contents. Inmates will often do this to one another to take revenge for a perceived affront or provocation.
The suit alleges that deputies “convinced and directed” another inmate to gas Soria while they assisted by unlocking certain doors. According to the suit, the guards allegedly unlocked the cell door of an inmate commonly known as “Preacher,” as well as the small handcuffing port on Soria’s cell door, through which Preacher then allegedly gassed Soria.
“Why they did it, I can’t really tell you,” said Lacy in a phone interview. To make matters worse for Soria, Lacy said, the deputies “wouldn’t provide him with new clothes after this happened and only to learn that Fernando was able to semi-clean himself. I say ‘semi’ because he had to use the water from the commode, or the toilet, in his cell to wash himself and to wash his clothes.”
“They did this multiple times, each of the deputies,” Lacy added.
In one instance, one or multiple deputies—“We don’t know which one at this point,” Lacy said—allegedly kicked Soria’s cell door closed while his arm was still in the handcuffing port, breaking his arm, the complaint alleges. Lacy said Soria was trying to block another gassing attempt. Deputies then allegedly denied him medical care for his broken arm for about a week, which violated his civil rights, Lacy said.
Soria is currently living in Hayward, and the charges that led to his detention were dismissed, according to Lacy. Soria’s arm is still not completely healed, his attorney said. “There is limited mobility and strength,” Lacy said.
Soria’s lawyers are asking for an unnamed amount of monetary damages that would include medical expenses and financial compensation for pain, suffering, shame and humiliation, Lacy said. Special damages might include past and future medical expenses, including “maybe some psychological visits that I’m sure Fernando is going to need to take part in for quite some time after being tortured for more than four months in Santa Rita by these deputies,” he said.
The complaint asks for attorney’s fees and cost of the lawsuit to be remunerated. It also calls for the sheriff’s department to make specific changes in protocol, including, Lacy wrote in a text message: “Better guidelines for the department regarding video surveillance, more discriminating hiring process that weeds out candidates who may do this kind of thing, and appropriate discipline for all those involved.”
In the suit, Lacy wrote that the county is allegedly “maintaining a policy of inaction and an attitude of indifference” towards misconduct by sheriff’s deputies. He believes Soria’s treatment is indicative of larger issues within the sheriff’s office.
“We want the county to acknowledge the wrongdoing, and we don’t want this to be ratified by giving a gentle slap on the wrist for these deputies,” Lacy said during the phone interview. “And furthermore, I believe once we really get into this case there’s going to be some issues with training and protocol, and we want those things to be addressed so that these types of happenings don’t occur again.”
Soria, whom Lacy described as a “quiet guy,” did not respond to his lawyer’s request to offer comment for this article.
No court documents have been filed on behalf of any of the five defendants listed in the federal civil suit complaint, which names the four former deputies and the county. Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler did not respond to request for comment. Lacy says that, to his knowledge, the former deputies have not yet hired legal counsel for the civil suit.
United States District Court, Northern District of California, randomly assigned United States Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler to this case on Wednesday, October 24.
When asked for comment, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Sergeant Ray Kelly wrote via email: “These individuals no longer work here and are facing criminal charges for their alleged unlawful and disturbing conduct.”
Prior to Burris’ firm filing a civil suit, the Alameda County’s District Attorney’s Office had filed criminal charges against the same four deputies in Alameda County Superior Court on September 5, 2017. According to the charges, the deputies “assaulted and beat” several inmates at Santa Rita jail.
According to court records, Justin Linn was charged with allegedly assaulting Soria and numerous other inmates. Erik McDermott was charged with allegedly assaulting multiple inmates, none of which included Soria. The other two deputies, Stephen Sarcos and Sarah Krause, were charged with allegedly assaulting one inmate, Johnny Jerome Bowie.
Linn was charged with at least four counts of assault by a public officer, and one count each of dissuading a witness by force or threat and conspiracy to obstruct justice. McDermott was charged with at least two counts of assault by a public officer, and one count each of dissuading a witness by force or threat and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Sarcos and Krause were each charged with one felony count of assault by a public officer for the alleged gassing of Bowie. (Although Sarcos and Krause were charged in criminal court only for an assault allegedly committed against Bowie, they were among the four named in Soria’s civil suit.)
All four pled not guilty to all charges.
On October 19, during a preliminary hearing, lawyers for Sarcos and Krause attempted to convince Judge Morris Jacobson to downgrade each of the defendants’ single felony charge to a misdemeanor. Sarcos and Krause were charged with what attorneys refer to as a “wobbler,” meaning that the District Attorney’s Office can choose whether to prosecute the case as a felony or a misdemeanor.
During the hearing, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Timothy Wagstaffe described the defendants’ behavior as “absolutely foul” and said, “from a human perspective, it is so disgusting.” He argued that their alleged actions warrant a felony trial.
“And my argument,” Wagstaffe said Tuesday in a phone interview, “was that though they didn’t have any kind of criminal history—they were working as sheriff’s deputies—but this conduct was particularly egregious, and it violates the public trust. We trust that sheriff’s deputies are going to serve as caretakers of people, and what they did violated that trust.”
Attorneys for both Sarcos and Krause argued that the judge should reduce their charges to misdemeanors because neither of the defendants will ever serve as law enforcement officers again and that they don’t pose any risk to public safety.
Additionally, attorney Joshua Olander argued that a felony conviction would be especially deleterious to Sarcos’ family, because he needs to have a job with health benefits to take care of his wife and daughter.
Attorney Paul Goyette argued that Krause has taken responsibility for her actions, and that what she allegedly did—pressed a button to unlock electronically an inmate’s cell door—does not qualify as felony misconduct, even though it exhibited poor judgment. Goyette also said that his client was afraid of Bowie, and that her job as a jail guard was mentally exhausting.
After hearing all arguments, the judge ruled in favor of Wagstaffe, agreeing that the trial should run its course using the felony charges. “But,” Wagstaffe added in a phone interview on Tuesday, “any judge can reduce it to a misdemeanor, if they wanted to. Even after a conviction at a jury trial, they could do that, so it will always be up to the judge. Just because the judge during that hearing decided that it should remain a felony doesn’t mean it will necessarily remain a felony in the eyes of all the other judges.”
None of the attorneys for the four defendants in the criminal trial returned requests for comment, except for Olander, who wrote in an email: “Beyond my arguments at the preliminary hearing I will not be making any additional statements at this time.”
Sarcos and Krause are scheduled to be arraigned in Alameda County Superior Court on November 2. Wagstaffe said via phone that he expects them to re-enter their not guilty pleas.
The next hearing date for Linn and McDermott in Alameda County Superior Court is scheduled for January.