Federal jury awards $4 million to family of man in Rohnert Park suffocation death
A federal jury Thursday awarded $4 million to the family of a Forestville man who died while being held facedown on the floor of a motel room two years ago by Rohnert Park public safety officers, marking the largest award in a civil rights case against Sonoma County law enforcement in at least a quarter century.
Branch Wroth’s parents, Christopher and Marni Wroth of Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County, sued the city and the officers in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging Rohnert Park failed to train its officers to avoid suffocating people when restraining them and was deliberately indifferent to the physical risks posed to civilians.
Wroth, 41, died May 12, 2017, while being held on the ground by the officers, who were called to the Rohnert Park Budget Inn by staff that day to check on his welfare.
During the trial, the six-woman, four-man jury watched body camera video from officers at the motel, including footage showing officers holding Wroth on the ground, pulling his legs and arms behind him. Shortly before he went limp, Wroth could be heard through muffled sobs saying, “I can’t breathe.”
The jury deliberated over four days after the eight-day trial, reaching a unanimous verdict that Rohnert Park’s training problems were a “moving force” behind Wroth’s death. The jury found the individual officers acted with deliberate indifference in Wroth’s death, but that their indifference didn’t cause his death. It was the city’s fault, they found.
“You’re not going to fix the injury to that family with money, but there is a chance, however remote, that if Rohnert Park is paying attention to this verdict, it will stop someone else’s son from dying in the future,” said the family’s attorney, Izaak Schwaiger.
Marni Wroth said she was “overwhelmed and humbled” by the trial. In an email, she said she believed strongly that her son was the recipient “of poor policing from a department whose job it is to protect and serve us.”
Rohnert Park officials said the city is challenging the jury’s findings.
The city has filed a motion to ask the judge to overturn the verdict, contending the Wroths’ claims about inadequate training were invalid, Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said.
He noted that Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s review of Wroth’s death, which cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, found the officer who first responded used “the least amount of force possible at each stage,” and “delayed physical contact until it was absolutely necessary.”
Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Tim Mattos, who took the helm of the department in December, also declined to comment, saying he’s been asked by the city to refer all questions about the case to the city manager’s office. Both Mattos and former Director Brian Masterson testified during the trial.
The verdict is the latest legal blow to the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department amid a string of high-profile lawsuits alleging civil rights violations and other misconduct by its officers.
In December, a federal jury determined Rohnert Park officers violated the rights of a local family when they searched their home in 2014 while looking for their son, who was on probation. One officer slipped through a back door of the house with his gun drawn, then holstered the weapon before taking the family by surprise. The jury awarded the family $145,000.
The federal judge in that case ordered the city to overhaul its training to ensure its police officers follow the law during warrantless searches, noting in her opinion that there “are systemic problems in the way that the City of Rohnert Park fails to train its police officers.”
In the Wroth case, the city argued that Wroth died as a result of a combination of health issues and methamphetamine intoxication. The Sonoma County coroner classified his death as a homicide, a finding that doesn’t imply criminal liability but meant Wroth died at the hands of another.
Ravitch in May 2018 cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing in a report that said Wroth’s death was likely caused by his drug intoxication combined with physical exertion while resisting police.
The encounter began when staff from the motel on Redwood Drive called police reporting that a “very disoriented person” hadn’t left his room by checkout time, according to official reports.
Officers encountered Wroth in the room. He was high on methamphetamine and mostly naked, reluctant to put clothes on because he feared the clothing was poisoning him, the court filings and body camera video showed.
Wroth resisted being arrested by the officers who came to the room. The officers eventually got Wroth onto the ground, shocked him with a stun gun, hit him with a flashlight and restrained his arms and legs, according to the records.