Sheriff says use-of-force victim is responsible for her own broken nose in Gold Line search
By Kevin Uhrich 09/06/2012
Pasadena’s Carla Sameth ultimately was not charged with either fare evasion or resisting arrest in relation to a violent incident on a Gold Line boarding platform in 2009, but Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators determined that the deputies involved in that same incident had acted “within policy” in detaining and searching Sameth, then ramming her face into a steel post, breaking her nose, chipping a tooth and causing other facial, ear and neck injuries.
In a use-of-force report prepared three weeks after the Dec. 28, 2009 incident, Deputies David Ybarra, Veronica Baeza and Ronald Anderson were exonerated for their roles in the search and subsequent injuries inflicted by Baeza upon Sameth, who was originally detained by Ybarra for allegedly riding on the Gold Line without a ticket.
Sameth, who according to the report showed a receipt to Ybarra for a $5 day pass, which was lost in her purse, was released from LA County USC-Medical Center after receiving treatment for her injuries more than eight hours following the incident.
“The non-compliant actions of the suspect led to her becoming off-balance and striking her nose upon the support pole. Although a significant injury, the nose injury could have been prevented had the suspect not resisted the simple pat-down search being conducted by the deputy. The deputy was acting within the scope of the law and department guidelines while conducting the search,” the sheriff’s report concludes.
In the estimation of the sheriff’s Risk Management Bureau Coordinator Captain Shaun Mathers, “This incident was thoroughly investigated by representatives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Transit Service Bureau North,” states the document signed by Mathers on April 12. “The investigation concluded that the actions taken by the three deputies were reasonable, justified and in compliance with department policy. Consequently, no corrective action measures are recommended or contemplated.”
In late June, Sameth, a Pasadena businesswoman and single mother of two teenagers, ended her federal civil rights lawsuit against the county and the Sheriff’s Department for an out-of-court settlement of $199,000. She insists she only lost her balance after Baeza forced her face into the pole. Sameth’s harrowing first-person account of her ordeal, titled “One day on the Gold Line,” ran in the Aug. 30 issue of the Weekly and can be read online at pasadenaweekly.com.
In a June 20 report to Sachi Hamai, executive officer of the Board of Supervisors, Senior Assistant County Counsel Patrick Wu wrote that the county would agree to pay Sameth the money. In the document to the board, county officials calculated that $47,125 in attorney fees and another $21,789 in other costs associated with the case had already been paid.
“Quite honestly, it reminds me of what batterers say about those they abuse,” Sameth said about the sheriff’s conclusions. “I worked for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and prepared many domestic violence cases. The explanations and excuses were very similar about how the victims injured themselves and it was all their fault — blaming the victim.”
Laura Inlow, the Torrance-based attorney representing the Sheriff’s Department, said she was asked to allow the department to speak to the media about the case. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore was unfamiliar with the case, but said the situation involving Sameth and the deputies sounded regrettable. But Whitmore also said ideas for potential reform of the current system are welcome.
“Reforms are always something the sheriff is looking at,” Whitmore said. “Regardless of where the idea comes from, if the suggestion has merit, the sheriff will look at it.”
Sameth’s attorney, John Burton of Pasadena, said the deputies overreacted and had no business searching Sameth over a fare evasion claim. Unless deputies had a reasonable suspicion that Sameth was armed, which she was not, the search constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees against unreasonable searches.
“It’s like these deputies just have a mindset that you can’t put up with any resistance, any talk back. The pattern here, it is the kind of minor friction that occurs between human beings all the time in a complex society. … But because they are deputies, they retaliate with law enforcement powers,” said Burton, observing that cases of police responding to minor incidents — especially those involving women — with overwhelming and sometimes deadly force seem to be on the rise.
Burton cited as an example the LAPD, which is now under fire over the July 22 in-custody death of one woman, 35-year-old Alesia Thomas, and the extreme injuries inflicted last month upon 34-year-old registered nurse Michelle Jordan of Sunland by officers. Jordan was pulled out of her car, handcuffed, then knocked down from behind and dragged across a parking lot for allegedly resisting arrest over an alleged cell phone violation.
In Thomas’ case, officers tried to arrest the South Los Angeles resident after she dropped off her two children, ages 3 and 12, at the LAPD’s Southeast Station. She reportedly told police she was a drug addict and could no longer take care of the kids, according to the LA Times. When she allegedly resisted arrest, the Times reported, officers bound her ankles and hands in what is called a “hobble restraint device” before another officer kicked her in the genitals and verbally abused her. When Thomas was finally in the backseat, she died.
The incident involving Jordan, in which police officials claim the woman defied orders to stay in her car and began challenging them, was caught on a camera owned by a business in the Tujunga mall where she had parked after being pulled over, according to the Times. The officers then arrested her, slamming her body to the ground. After she was handcuffed, the video shows Jordan being led to the back of the police cruiser, where she was slammed to the ground a second time.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has ordered investigations into both incidents and assigned all of the officers involved to desk duty during that process.
The Sheriff’s Department is currently under investigation by the US Justice Department and is presently the target of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Southern California. Both agencies are investigating claims that deputies regularly beat and torture inmates inside county jails.
Burton said the incident involving Sameth was taken to extremes by the three deputies, all of whom, he said, had been trained in a culture of violence in county jails, where new deputies spend three to five years before going on patrol.
“All [Ybarra] had to do was write a ticket and say, ‘See you in court,’” Burton said.
In deposition testimony provided by a top Sheriff’s Department official in relation to Sameth’s lawsuit, the 32-year veteran and detective sergeant supervising the sheriff’s Transit Services Bureau was, at times, intentionally vague about exactly what he knew about the incident and who was in charge of the initial investigation of Sameth’s injuries.
In that testimony, Detective Sgt. Ronald Marquez described a surreal series of events. Although he was the first ranking officer on the scene (called there by radio dispatch due to the absence of supervising Sgt. Mike Burse) and the first person to separately interview each of the deputies involved, Marquez did not record or write down any portions of those conversations. He also could not recall any portion of what was said.
Under questioning by Burton, Marquez revealed he was through with his videotaping of Sameth — all while Sameth, handcuffed to a gurney inside an ambulance, said Baeza stood within earshot of the conversation — by the time Burse finally arrived at the scene.
Sameth said she never saw Burse throughout the course of the incident. When the supervising sergeant finally showed up, Marquez said he and Burse exchanged very few words, perhaps as much as saying “hi,” and did not talk about the incident before Marquez left for his office at Gateway Plaza in downtown LA. Marquez said he simply handed the videotape to Burse — who ostensibly used it later to write the exonerating use-of-force report — and left the scene.
In his testimony, Marquez told Burton he did not know why Sameth was in custody or what types of injuries she had suffered, but he said he asked that he be allowed to interview Sameth about her injuries while she was being treated by paramedics. Like the three deputies, Marquez didn’t recall reading Sameth her rights and couldn’t cite specific department policies regarding the proper handling of such incidents.
That’s because “It was not my role, sir,” Marquez told Burton bluntly.
Marquez also didn’t record on his video camera the city paramedic telling him it was OK to interview Sameth while she was being treated. Marquez did, however, make one thing abundantly clear: “I was not investigating a use of force. I was merely conducting a taped interview of this person. I was not investigating this incident,” he said.
When pressed for what he’d learned from interviewing Baeza, Anderson and Ybarra before interviewing and videotaping Sameth, Marquez could only remember that the deputies “were not injured” in the altercation.
“Though I’m glad I didn’t have to go to trial, it wasn’t enough,” Sameth wrote in her story published in the Weekly. “There is not a week that goes by without another article or story about violence committed by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. The deputy who broke my nose, the deputy who took me off the Metro, the ‘supervisor’ who interrogated me in front of my assailant — no one — has ever admitted wrongdoing or apologized. I am not aware of any reprimands or training ordered as a result of the incident,” she wrote. “Looking at what happened to me and at what happens inside the jails, I have to ask, how many more stories like mine are out there?”
Having learned that the deputies involved in her beating were exonerated, Sameth said she worries about the likelihood of other incidents occurring in the future.
“It is so completely outrageous,” she said. “It makes me feel sick to my stomach. And it makes me very afraid of what they are capable of … Not a good lesson for my kids, in terms of ethics, truth and honesty, taking responsibility.”
The incident and its outcome illustrate “an acceptable culture of violence and complete lack of accountability within the LA County’s Sheriff’s Department,” Sameth added.
“It seems there is such a strong culture of abuse and cover-up, blaming the victim, justifying force. The message was so clear to me that day and night that I was powerless and did not have rights, and asserting myself in any way or asking questions would only cause more problems for me. There is really nothing in my life that would have adequately prepared me for that experience, and I can say unequivocally that it was not my fault and that there were a multitude of wrong actions on the part of the Sheriff’s department that day and night.”
“My read on this is they are putting these deputies in (charge of) jails and inculcating them with a certain attitude and then letting them out on the street where they are doing the same thing” to average citizens as they do to inmates, said Burton. “This is really sick, this is really pathological, and the result of all this will cause major problems.”