Appeals court reverses decision barring Petaluma woman’s excessive force lawsuit against sheriff’s deputy

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its 2021 decision to bar an excessive force lawsuit against a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who threw a woman to the ground during a 2015 domestic disturbance investigation.|

A federal appeals court has reversed its 2021 decision barring a Petaluma woman’s excessive force lawsuit against a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who threw her to the ground during a 2015 domestic disturbance investigation.

In its 9-2 decision released Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena determined it had erroneously upheld the ruling of a lower court against the woman, Gabrielle Lemos.

The district court stopped Lemos from suing then-Sheriff Steve Freitas, Deputy Marcus Holton and Sonoma County because Lemos was convicted of misdemeanor resisting arrest and obstructing an investigation.

This was based on a legal principle that prohibits a person from suing law enforcement for a civil rights violation if the incident they were involved in led to their criminal conviction. This is because if the person were to win the suit it would invalidate the basis of their criminal conviction.

“But because the record does not show that Lemos’ (claim) necessarily rests on the same event as her criminal conviction, success in the former would not necessarily imply the invalidity of the latter,” Judge Eric Miller wrote in the majority opinion.

The county has 90 days to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Otherwise, it will be sent back to district court, where the lawsuit will resume where it left off seven years ago.

Richard Osman, the San Francisco attorney representing the county and Sheriff’s Office, did not immediately comment.

The 11-judge panel issued the decision after an “en banc” hearing, a proceeding in which the court revisits arguments on a case of exceptional importance. Only about 1 in 100 cases decided by the 9th Circuit are granted an en banc hearing, according to Izaak Schwaiger, the attorney representing Lemos.

The ruling may potentially change the landscape of excessive force claims against police across the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, Schwaiger said.

It effectively narrows the use of the legal maneuver that has previously been used to stop many civil rights lawsuits against police before they’ve begun.

The panel’s decision boils down to whether the Sonoma County jury that convicted Lemos of the misdemeanor crime in August 2016 had, in doing so, also deemed every action Deputy Holton took the night of her arrest as lawful.

In its 23-page decision Tuesday, the majority said that “just because you are convicted doesn’t necessarily mean all the officer did was OK,” Schwaiger said. "Unless the conviction was specifically from the very act that resulted in the use of force, and that’s clear in the jury’s verdict, then you can’t stop a person from getting their excessive force lawsuit off the ground.”

The Lemos case made headlines after the 5-foot, 105-pound, then-18-year-old suffered two black eyes and facial bruising in her arrest outside her high school graduation party.

Holton, who was on routine patrol, stopped to check out what he described as women yelling and a truck parked in the middle of the street.

When he attempted to question Lemos’ apparently intoxicated sister in the truck, Lemos stepped between them, body-worn camera footage shows.

At one point, Lemos tried to walk into her house as Holton told her to return. Holton then ran up behind her and tackled her to the ground as she yelled.

The trial indefinitely stalled her federal lawsuit against the deputy and the county.

Now 25 and living in Sonoma County, Lemos still hopes to pursue the case, Schwaiger said.

“She firmly believes that what happened to her was wrong and the system should not allow police officers to hide behind highly technical rules of law to get away with excessive use of force,” Schwaiger said. “All she’s wanted from the beginning is an opportunity to tell her side of the story.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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