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Sonoma County deputy who used neck hold before man's death had previous excessive force accusations

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The Sonoma County deputy who last week used a controversial neck hold on a man who died a short time later used a similar restraint on a woman in 2015, then gave testimony that contradicted video of the incident.

Past allegations of excessive force involving Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount and his contradictory statements in the 2015 arrest have come under scrutiny this week, while authorities revealed more details Thursday about events leading up to the death of the Bloomfield man after Blount applied a carotid hold the day before Thanksgiving.

Police said Blount attempted the hold on David Ward, 52, after he led two Sebastopol officers and a separate Sonoma County deputy, Jason Little, on a chase through west Sonoma County.

Ward, who refused their orders to open the car’s door, had reported the vehicle stolen by an armed suspect days prior but did not tell officers that he had recovered the 2003 Honda Civic earlier that morning, police said. He was attempting to drive it home when he was stopped and then fled, authorities added.

Ward was pronounced dead at a local hospital about an hour after his contact with the deputies. The cause of his death is not yet publicly known.

The carotid hold, which aims to knock a person unconscious, requires deputies to wrap an arm around a suspect’s neck to reduce blood flow to their brain, though if done incorrectly can block the person’s airways instead.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office allows the hold in their force policy but deputies are told to avoid the tactic on certain populations, such as pregnant women or the elderly, unless there are no better options.

In the 2015 case, Blount testified he had pushed Celeste Moon, 51, to the ground after placing both hands on her shoulders. But video from a witness played in court of a portion of her Jan. 23 arrest showed him put his arm around her neck before throwing her to the ground.

Moon allegedly ran from Blount after he tried to stop her for jaywalking near Humboldt Street and College Avenue in Santa Rosa, court transcripts show.

Though Blount put his arm around Moon’s neck, the restraint shown in the video lasts for a brief moment and resembles a headlock.

Moon did not lose consciousness.

Prosecutors determined there was insufficient evidence to move forward and the case against Moon was dismissed. Izaak Schwaiger, Moon’s lawyer, said Blount did not know the video existed before it was played in court.

Jamie Thistlethwaite, the judge overseeing the case, took the unusual step of directing prosecutors to include Blount, then a 17-year law enforcement veteran, in files that document officers with credibility issues, Schwaiger said.

But when Schwaiger represented clients in a separate case months later, in which Blount described performing a carotid hold on an unruly, intoxicated man April 4, 2015, Schwaiger said he received no such advisory from prosecutors of potential credibility problems.

In that case, Blount described using the restraint to control the man, who was regaining consciousness after falling and hitting his head on a door, copies of his report provided by Schwaiger showed. Blount got on his knees behind the man and executed a carotid restraint hold after determining “that our best chance of controlling (him) was to prevent him from standing” when the man began flailing and resisted attempts to control his arms, he wrote.

The man’s name was redacted from the documents. No civil case was ever filed in the matter, Schwaiger said.

Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell confirmed in emails Thursday that Blount was not placed on what is referred to as the Brady list of officials with credibility issues after the Moon case.

The judge made no finding about whether Blount was dishonest during his testimony and nothing else in her ruling qualified as Brady evidence, he added.

Attempts to reach Blount for comment via multiple email addresses and phone numbers were unsuccessful Thursday. Both he and Little remained on administrative leave, Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

When asked about the Moon case, Valencia said he could not comment on the deputy’s personnel records.

He directed questions about a related internal affairs investigation in that case to Sonoma County’s County Counsel Office.

“Anytime force is used on a person, we look into it and it’s always a concern to us to make sure the deputy or deputies were within policy,” Valencia said when asked about civil rights lawsuits that named Blount.

The two previous cases shed light on instances in which Blount favored the use of neck holds to gain control of an individual prior to last week’s in-custody death, despite what officials describe as a rarely used tactic among the law enforcement field.

Blount is also named as a defendant in two federal civil rights lawsuits in which plaintiffs alleged they were the targets of excessive force by Blount. Each case resulted in settlements, court records show, though information about the conditions of those settlements was not publicly available Thursday in online court records.

“Common sense tells us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” said Schwaiger, who knew about the federal cases. “When you have an officer who demonstrates a tendency of violence, that’s what we expect from him.”

In last week’s incident, Ward was taken to a hospital after his encounter with the two deputies, who struck the man with their fists, elbows and knees before Little fired a Taser at Ward and Blount attempted the hold, police said. Ward bit both deputies during the incident.

After the chase but before the fight with deputies began, Ward asked officers why he was being stopped, Santa Rosa Police Lt. Dan Marincik said. At one point, Ward rolled down his car window and said, “I can’t believe this. I’m the injured party in this. Why are you f—ing harassing me all the time,” according to Marincik.

He died about an hour later. Autopsy reports determining his cause of death won’t be made available until after the independent investigation conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department, coroner’s officials said.

Regardless, Ward’s family members said they are increasingly interested in taking legal action given revelations about his encounter with the deputies and reports of past excessive force accusations leveled against Blount.

His mother, Ernestine Ward, of Sebastopol, said she’s meeting with an attorney next week. Though approached by different lawyers about the case early on, Ward said her first reaction was she “didn’t want to add to all the hate.”

But with the passage of several days and new information continuing to come out, “I’m getting mad now,” she said.

While the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office could not immediately provide data about the number of carotid holds reported by deputies last year, the Santa Rosa Police Department, the county’s second largest agency, reported two such incidents in their 2018 annual report posted online. Takedowns, the most common force type for the city agency that year, were reported 145 times.

Blount was at the center of a federal civil case involving a June 2012 incident at Sonoma Raceway in which a man was badly beaten when he stumbled into Blount’s path while chasing someone who had just tried to steal his golf cart.

The plaintiff, a Sonora racing enthusiast named Lloyd Beardsley, had been enjoying a NASCAR weekend with a disabled friend and co-owner of the golf cart when, while inside another friend’s recreational vehicle, they saw the lights on the golf cart flash and realized someone was trying to steal it, according to a lawsuit later filed in U.S. District Court.

Beardsley ran outside and tried to chase the man, following him into another campsite where deputies were breaking up a loud party.

Blount was among them, the suit states. Blount stopped Beardsley, ordered him to put up his hands and, though he complied, “tackled Mr. Beardsley violently to the ground and began to beat him,” the lawsuit states.

Though Beardsley had refrained from drinking so he could feel peppy the next day, he was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication, as well as resisting arrest and fighting, jailed overnight and taken to trial the next winter, the suit says. The fighting charge was dismissed during trial, and a jury acquitted Beardsley of the other two counts.

Despite being found innocent, Beardsley, a building contractor, had to sell his truck and lose work to finance his criminal defense and his civil suit, according to the complaint.

The case was settled, though terms were not available, and his civil attorney was not available to comment.

Blount also was among five Santa Rosa police officers and two Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies targeted in a 2013 federal lawsuit involving a 17-year-old Elsie Allen High School student who was severely injured during a predawn encounter with law enforcement.

The plaintiff had been reported missing and at-risk by his grandparents a few hours earlier when he turned up at a stranger’s home near the school after 4 a.m. March 30, 2011, thinking it was his friend’s house nearby. He wanted to go home, and he hoped to use his friend’s phone, his lawsuit said.

But when he was seen pacing back and forth on the wrong front porch, police were called, according to his lawsuit and news reports from the time.

Authorities found the teen confused, disoriented and uncooperative, and were unable to subdue him, police said at the time.

The lawsuit contended arriving police should have realized the boy matched the missing person report involving a youth in psychological distress.

But instead of treating him as someone in trouble and addressing his requests to go home, “the officers began assaulting and beating plaintiff without legal justification,” the suit states.

As backup law enforcement authorities arrived, they all participated in trying to subdue the teen using batons, flashlights, pepper spray and stun guns, finally getting him hogtied and down on his face the street.

The boy suffered kidney failure for three weeks as a result, and required two surgeries to relieve pressure from fluid buildup in his arms, his lawsuit states. He also had facial lacerations from being dragged on his face.

He eventually settled for $350,000, though the settlement did not include an admission of guilt, and police said most of their efforts to subdue the boy had no effect.

They also said police had to wrestle a folding knife away from him, and that he broke away at least twice and almost got behind the wheel of a patrol car that had been left running, raising fears he might get access to weapons, according to news accounts.

More recently, Blount and Little were involved in an officer-involved-shooting in October 2017. A Sonoma County Sheriff’s internal affairs investigation found no policy violations in the case, in which the deputies responded to a report of a man assaulting someone in a stolen pickup truck.

Blount struck the man, identified as Shawn Hart, twice after he rammed the car into Blount’s patrol car and showed signs that he was orienting himself to shoot, the internal records showed. Little also fired, but missed. Hart survived the shooting and pleaded no contest to two counts of assault on an officer with a deadly weapon. He received a suspended sentence of three years.

Staff Writer Chantelle Lee contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writers Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com and Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misquoted David Ward, based on incorrect information provided by Santa Rosa police.

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