Injured Army veteran sues Santa Rosa police over post-seizure arrest
Imagine regaining consciousness with a dark-colored sack over your head, arms and legs restrained and unclear how you ended up that way.
That is how Santa Rosa resident Andy Ford, a U.S. Army veteran with a brain injury suffered while serving in Afghanistan, recalls emerging from an incapacitating seizure he experienced in public in February 2018.
He discovered he was in police custody at Sutter Medical Center’s emergency room. He was confused and ashamed. He said he felt he had been betrayed.
Santa Rosa officers had mistaken his seizure symptoms as signs of intoxication and disobedience, according to Ford.
“After I have a seizure, until I wake up, other people have to take care of me,” said Ford, 27, who remembers offering to help a woman on the street while on his way to catch a bus. “The last thing I remember is trying to help a lady carry a table. Then I woke up with a bag over my head.”
Ford, who studied at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park before enlisting in the Army, filed a federal complaint this week against the Santa Rosa Police Department under a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 1990 law spells out civil rights for disabled people, include those with recurrent seizures.
Ford alleges police misinterpreted his seizure symptoms as intoxication and then failed to change course after a paramedic on the scene said he recognized Ford as a war vet with a seizure disorder. In his complaint, Ford claims hospital staff also told police about Ford’s medical history before officers booked him into the Sonoma County Jail.
“Having a seizure is not an illegal act,” according to Ford’s legal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The officers booked him “for resisting arrest while he was having a seizure and lacked the mental capacity to commit a crime,” the court filing states.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder declined to answer questions about Ford’s case because he said he’s barred from discussing ongoing litigation and wasn’t familiar with the details of Ford’s arrest. Schreeder said the city’s officers do their best to evaluate each situation, however if a subject is unruly, “we have to get control of the situation before we can assess somebody.”
“We come across people that are in a variety of states on a regular basis, be they intoxicated, under the influence of drugs or having medical issues,” Schreeder said. “We do our best to determine what it is in a short period of time to protect the community and the person being impacted.”
The circumstances Ford describes in his complaint mirror a longstanding conflict between common police practices and the manifestation of some seizure disorders, which can cause a person to wander and act out although the person remains in an unconscious state, said Allison Nichol, director of legal advocacy at the Epilepsy Foundation based in Washington, D.C.
Law enforcement officers are trained to restrain people who don’t comply with orders, but that tactic is counterproductive when dealing with people experiencing seizures, she said.
“The person with epilepsy is always going to resist being restrained,” Nichol said. “They’re not present. The body is acting on its own.”
In his complaint, Ford also accuses the department of malicious prosecution because police, in their reports recommending he be charged with two felony crimes, made no mention of his medical emergency, or that they had been informed of his history of seizures, according to the complaint.
A person convicted of felony resisting arrest cannot sue a police department for the arrest circumstances.
Prosecutors initially charged Ford with two counts of felony resisting arrest on March 19, 2018, Sonoma County Superior Court records show. Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said his office dismissed the case against Ford on April 23, 2018, after prosecutors learned Ford had “significant medical issues that we believe prevented him from being able to form the mental state needed at the time he acted to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Ford was injured in November 2012 while on patrol as an Army infantryman in the mountains of Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan. His unit was ambushed, and a rocket propelled grenade exploded near Ford, lifting him off the ground and throwing him into a boulder, according to the complaint.
He was burned and his body riddled with shrapnel, but the unit still had to make its way down the mountain. Ford said he wouldn’t understand the full extent of his brain injuries until months later. He completed his tour of duty in 2013 and returned to Santa Rosa.