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Ruling Revives Anaheim Police Civil Suit

Federal judge reinstates action on behalf of a man left comatose after a police encounter.

September 11, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge Wednesday resurrected a civil lawsuit by the family of a former Anaheim resident who, the family says, was left in a permanent vegetative state by city police officers who handcuffed and held him down.

"Any reasonable officer should have known that such conduct constituted the use of excessive force," U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in overturning a lower-court decision that had dismissed the lawsuit against the Anaheim Police Department on behalf of Brian Thomas Drummond, now 36. "The force allegedly employed by the officers was certainly not warranted."

An attorney representing Anaheim disagreed, saying in an interview that officers had acted appropriately given the intensity of Drummond's response.

"He was cussing and kicking and screaming the entire time," Deputy City Atty. Deborah P. Knefel said. "He resisted the officers right up until he suddenly grew docile. I think the judge is wrong."

On March 26, 1999, a neighbor called police to prevent Drummond, who had a history of mental illness, from darting into traffic.

Officers responding to the call found him in the parking lot of an Anaheim 7-Eleven, apparently agitated and hallucinating, court records show.

After summoning an ambulance to transport him to a medical facility, according to the records, the officers handcuffed Drummond and held him face down on the pavement more than 20 minutes "for his own safety."

Eventually, the lawsuit contends -- after Drummond complained repeatedly of not being able to breathe -- he lost consciousness, sustained brain damage, fell into a coma and has remained in a "permanent vegetative state."

"We're just asking for a sufficient amount of compensation to take care of him for the rest of his existence," said Federico C. Sayre, the family's lawyer. "Obviously that amounts to multiple millions of dollars. Either it will be paid for by us as taxpayers, or by the city of Anaheim and its insurance company."

Reinhardt's ruling, he said, clears the way for a trial, which Sayre said he hopes will happen in six to nine months.

Knefel, however, said she would first ask for a rehearing of the case before a larger panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It needs a broader review," she said of Reinhardt's decision. If allowed to stand, she said, the ruling would force police to "believe somebody when he says he can't breathe ... even [if he's] cussing and screaming and kicking. To me, kicking a police officer is inconsistent with not being able to breathe."

Knefel said she believes that Drummond's coma was caused by his alleged use of drugs rather than the police officers' actions.

Drummond is cared for at a San Bernardino neurological unit.

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