Lawsuit alleges Sonoma County deputy used excessive force

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A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday accuses a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy of using excessive force against a recent Petaluma High School graduate when he allegedly grabbed the 115-pound teen by the neck and threw her onto a concrete driveway, grinding her face into the ground with a knee to the back of her head.

Deputy Marcus Holton assaulted and arrested Gabbi Lemos, 18, after she complained about how he was treating her sister, actions that violated both her constitutional right against police brutality and her right to free speech, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecific damages, names Sheriff Steve Freitas, the county and Holton as defendants.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sgt. Cecile Focha defended Holton’s actions during the June 13 incident, which was recorded on the deputy’s body camera. Holton continues to work full time as a patrol deputy.

“All of our deputies, including Deputy Holton, behaved with restraint and professionalism during a highly volatile situation,” Focha said.

The Sheriff’s Office has not conducted a formal internal affairs investigation into the matter because Lemos did not file a complaint against Holton, Focha said. However, the deputy’s supervisors reviewed the incident, including the body camera footage from all six deputies who responded to the scene, as a matter of routine when force is used and for the criminal case against Lemos.

Focha said the lawsuit will prompt an internal affairs investigation into the incident.

Holton arrested Lemos on suspicion of resisting arrest and battery on a police officer during the late-night encounter outside her home. Lemos was jailed after she was first taken to the hospital for treatment of her injuries, which included significant facial bruises and scrapes.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office received the body camera footage as part of the criminal case against Lemos. Prosecutors have asked for several continuances in the case. Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell on Thursday said that two weeks ago, they decided she would be charged with resisting or delaying arrest. The complaint has not yet been filed in court.

The Press Democrat on Thursday filed a request with the Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the body camera footage.

The incident took place June 13 outside the Lemos family’s Liberty Road home after they held a graduation party for her. Lemos, a two-time All Empire Athlete and former captain of her soccer team, currently attends Santa Rosa Junior College and plays midfield for the soccer team.

The deputy apparently pulled over that night to investigate a vehicle and trailer idling in the rural roadway outside her family’s home with its hazard lights blinking. Her sister, Karli Lemos, had left her phone at the house and was returning to her boyfriend, who was waiting in the vehicle, her attorney, Izaak Schwaiger said.

Holton asked the boyfriend to step out of the vehicle, and then at some point walked around and opened the passenger door with Karli Lemos seated inside. Lemos, another sister and their mother were outside the house at this point, drawn by the flashing lights on the patrol car.

Gabbi Lemos, during an interview Thursday, said she spoke up when Holton threw open the passenger door and grabbed her sister.

“It was scary seeing all his anger toward her in that moment. That’s when I decided to say something,” Lemos said.

Lemos rushed forward, according to the lawsuit, and “complained to the deputy that he had no right to pull her sister out of the vehicle and he needed to ask her first.” She also demanded he call a female deputy to the scene.

Holton then “violently shoved Gabbi” backward, and “yelled that no one else was coming,” according to the court filing. She said “You can’t touch me! We have rights!”

Gabbi’s mother told her to go into the house, and Holton followed as the teen began walking up the driveway, the papers said. Her family locked arms and tried to stand between the deputy and Lemos, but Holton “bolted around the family and without a word caught Gabbi from behind the neck in a chokehold, lifting her small body off the ground several feet before throwing her face-first onto the driveway.”

“Deputy Holton put his knee in the back of Gabbi’s head and began grinding her face into the gravel, despite her screams and her family’s pleas to stop,” the lawsuit said.

He put her in a patrol car. She was taken to a hospital and then booked into the Sonoma County Jail. No one else was arrested.

Lemos was released on bail several hours later and returned to the hospital because her face began to swell, she said. At that point, hospital staff asked if she’d like to file a report regarding the incident, and a deputy was dispatched to the hospital to document her injuries.

Lemos said she didn’t leave her house for a month after the incident.

“I felt like I couldn’t leave my house. I didn’t ever want to see him again or run into him,” Lemos said. “I was scared.”

Holton was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in a 2011 shooting that wounded a man he said was reaching for his waistband during an encounter on Todd Road. He shot the man twice, wounding him in the abdomen and buttocks.

Lemos’ case is the sixth pending civil rights lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.

A woman accused a Sonoma County Jail guard of harassment and sexual assault after a February incident during which she claimed he asked her to show her breasts and exposed his genitals.

In another case against correction officers, a group of 20 inmates claim they were beaten by guards in May during what they’ve described as a five-and-a-half hour attack, which the Sheriff’s Office has adamantly denied.

A Forestville man is asking for $3 million to settle an excessive- force lawsuit against several deputies after he claimed they beat him during his 2013 booking on drunken-driving charges, shocking him 23 times with a stun gun.

The parents of 13-year-old Andy Lopez filed a wrongful death claim in federal court against the county and the deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft BB gun for an assault rifle.

The family of a Larkfield man is also suing the Sheriff’s Office after the man committed suicide, claiming the SWAT team’s tactics during a 12-hour standoff at his home led him to take his life.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie. johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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