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Injured Army veteran sues Santa Rosa police over post-seizure arrest

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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.

That’s when the seizures began. Ford was diagnosed with refractory epilepsy, a difficult-to-treat seizure disorder.

Because of the severity and increasing frequency of his seizures, he’s lost his driver’s license and parts of his memory. Ford said he keeps a notebook with details of his days and his wife’s name.

On Feb. 12, 2018, Ford was walking to catch a bus at the downtown transit station in Santa Rosa to get to a neurology appointment at the Veterans Affairs clinic north of the city, he said. He never made it there. Ford thinks he had multiple seizures that day that caused him to wander around the downtown core. He was able to move and talk in a post-seizure state but was not conscious, he said. At one point he woke up on a bench in front of the Santa Rosa Police Department without his shirt or jacket, so he walked downtown to Sears to buy a shirt. It’s unclear why, but he ended up returning to the area near the police station.

He said he remembers seeing a woman trying to carry a table and offering to help her in a vacant field near the police station. Then he had a seizure, and she flagged down a passing officer, he said.

Ford now knows that before he regained consciousness, he didn’t comply with police orders and tried to get up off the ground, pushing away an officer’s hands, according to his lawsuit.

More than a dozen police officers eventually responded to the scene, including a Petaluma officer who was passing by, according to the complaint. Ford said he doesn’t fault police for coming to the scene to help a fellow officer.

“As a military guy, what would I have done if my guys had called for backup?” Ford said.

But he said he thinks they should have listened when a paramedic on the scene told the officers about Ford’s history with seizures. On the body camera video, shown by Ford’s attorney to The Press Democrat but not released publicly, a paramedic speaks up after recognizing Ford. He tells the officers Ford has seizures from “head trauma from Afghanistan.”

The officers appear to hear the new information and continue trying to restrain Ford as he resists.

“I want justice, but it’s not just about me,” said Ford in an interview this week. “I’m not the only one with epilepsy.”

A similar civil rights case involving an epileptic man detained by police is awaiting trial in federal court. The plaintiff is Taylor Swift, 30, a Larkspur resident and middle school teacher for children with learning disabilities. Police came to his family’s home in September 2016 in response to his mother’s 911 call requesting medical help because Swift was having a seizure. She’d done so in the past, and on at least five occasions paramedics had given Swift a sedative to ease the symptoms of the seizure and its aftermath, according to court files.

Almost immediately after arriving to the home, an officer shocked Swift — who was naked and on the ground — with a stun gun and then shocked him two more times, according to court filings and body camera video.

In court filings, the Marin County officers asserted the actions police took to detain Swift were lawful because “they feared Swift would escape into the kitchen and arm himself.” In response, a federal judge determined there was sufficient evidence for a trial because “a jury might well conclude the officers did not have an objectively reasonable basis for this fear.” The case is currently before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a request to exempt the officers from any liability.

Both men are being represented by Izaak Schwaiger, a Sebastopol criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He said the similarities with Ford’s and Swift’s experiences were disturbing.

“It screams for the need for institutional change,” Schwaiger said. “If it happens to one person, OK. But when it’s two people, then it must be a bigger problem. We need to ask, ‘What can we do better?’ ”

In an interview this week, Swift, 30, said he has asked his family and friends to not call 911 and instead allow the seizures to run their course because he now fears police.

“Imagine being tased by cops in your own house after your mother asked for help,” Swift said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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