A federal judge refused to dismiss a claim of racial profiling against the city of Pasadena in a lawsuit stemming from the violent arrest of an Altadena motorist in late 2017.
Christopher Ballew, who is African American, is suing the city of Pasadena and the Police Department for excessive force, false arrest, falsification of reports, delay or denial of medical care and excessive bail in relation to the incident.
A former John Muir High School basketball standout, Ballew, 23, was arrested at a gas station in Altadena on Nov. 9, 2017 by officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza for allegedly resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer after being stopped for driving without a front license plate and excessive window tint on his late-model Mercedes sedan.
In the course of the altercation, Ballew was struck on the head several times with fists and on the legs with a metal baton. His head was also rammed into the asphalt. He suffered a broken leg bone and multiple contusions during the arrest, a portion of which was captured by a passerby on a cell phone and later posted to Facebook.
After the incident had become public, Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell released footage captured by the body cameras worn by the officers.
Ballew was released on $50,000 bail. However, the LA County District Attorney’s Office later declined to charge Ballew with any crimes.
“Regardless of whether the stop was lawful, if the plaintiff can show that they were subjected to unequal treatment based upon their race or ethnicity during the course of an otherwise legal traffic stop, that would be sufficient to demonstrate a violation of the Equal Protection Clause,” wrote US District Judge Fernando M. Olguin.
As part of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause mandates all citizens have the guaranteed right to equal protection under the law.
The Fourteenth Amendment, which also grants citizenship to people born in this country or naturalized here, is one of three amendments adopted after the Civil War. The Thirteenth and Fifteenth amendments, respectively, abolished slavery and gave African Americans the right to vote.
In his ruling, Olguin also refused to throw out Ballew’s claims of excessive force being used and officers filing falsified reports, a decision which will allow jurors to decide the allegations.
The judge threw out Ballew’s delay in medical care claim, but left the door open for it to be reintroduced with more information.
In a prepared statement, one of the city’s attorneys said the defense would press on despite the judge’s refusal to dismiss the charges.
“We accept the court’s order on our motion to dismiss, which addressed the initial allegations raised by Mr. Ballew. While we disagree with some aspects of the ruling, we will continue to strongly defend the case to protect the public’s taxpayer dollars, as the matter moves forward,” said Justin Sarno, an attorney representing the city and the officers in the litigation.
Esparza and Lujan were n Altadena, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, when the incident occurred.
The Altadena Town Council was so upset by the incident that officials there sent a letter to Mayor Terry Tornek demanding that Lujan and Esparza not be allowed to patrol the area, despite decades of cooperation between the neighboring areas.
“I have yet to talk to one person who has seen the video who does not believe there was excessive use of force on the part of the police officers,” Altadena Town Council Chariman Okorie Ezieme told the Pasadena Weekly.
The 16-member Town Council, which meets monthly, unanimously voted to send the letter after its January 2018 session. Several local residents also provided input at that meeting.
Ballew’s attorney claims the officers were using common vehicle violations to detain, search and catalogue young African-American men as gang members or associates when they stopped Ballew.
“This is my neighborhood, this is where I live. I know it. Chris Ballew could be my neighbor. The Ballews are nice middle class people. Chris Ballew is not a thug or a criminal. He is a nice kid,” said civil rights attorney John Burton.
According to Burton, Lujan and Esparza were looking for African-American gang members and stopped Ballew and then became aggressive with him because he is African American and the officers assumed he was in a gang.
After police stopped Ballew in the parking lot of a gas station, they made contact with him as he walked toward the cashier.
A scuffle ensued after they walked Ballew back to his vehicle and attempted to handcuff him. Lujan repeatedly hurled profanities at the Altadena resident, demanding Ballew give him his “f—ing hands.”
Ballew repeatedly requested the officers call their commanding officer.
“Shut the f–-k up,” Lujan screamed at Ballew after pushing his face into the parking lot asphalt. Esparza also repeatedly told him to “stop acting like a dummy.”
Moments later, Ballew managed to make it to his feet and was struck twice by the baton. Ballew reached for the baton and began struggling with Esparza for the weapon.
As a scuffle ensued, Lujan hit Ballew and Esparza drew his service revolver while Ballew was close to his partner. Esparza did not fire and instead holstered the handgun.
By then, Ballew had been knocked to the ground by Lujan and had dropped the baton. At that point, Lujan jumped on Ballew’s back and started punching him on the side of his head.
After holstering his weapon, Esparza picked up the retractable metal baton and struck Ballew three times in the legs and ankles while his partner slammed Ballew’s head into the asphalt.
Ballew suffered facial abrasions and a fractured fibula during the encounter.
Robert Fonzi, a former San Bernardino undersheriff hired as a use-of-force expert by the city, concluded that the two Pasadena police officers used reasonable force.
Lujan and Esparza are lateral transfer hires from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Bakersfield Police Department, respectively, hired by the city despite repeated problems of “maintaining internal cultures that sanction misconduct, including excessive force, false arrests and frame ups and fabricated police reports, especially directed against African Americans,” according to Burton.
“They didn’t need sensitivity training. They needed discipline,” Burton told the Pasadena Weekly.
After the incident, the officers remained on duty for more than three months, despite outrage expressed by local community members before then-Police Chief Phillip Sanchez reassigned them to desk duty.
Sanchez left the department a week later.
“You can’t just assume because somebody is black and driving in Altadena they are a gang member,” Burton said.