A federal appeals court in San Francisco gave a green light today to a police brutality lawsuit filed against the city of Oakland by the family of a man who died of rib injuries after a police confrontation 11 years ago.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the mother and sister of Jerry Amaro were not too late when they filed their civil lawsuit in 2009 because stonewalling and an alleged cover-up by Oakland police delayed them in getting the information they needed.
Amaro, 36, died of pneumonia related to five rib fractures and a punctured lung on April 21, 2000, a month after he was arrested by Oakland police on suspicion of buying cocaine in an undercover sting.
He and his family alleged his ribs were broken in a beating by several officers during the arrest on March 23, 2000.
Amaro was held in jail for five days after his arrest. The family’s lawsuit alleges that he repeatedly complained of pain and asked for medical treatment both while being transported to jail and while there, but was not seen by a doctor.
A police report on the arrest did not mention a beating.
But an internal police investigation later in 2000 concluded that at least five officers used force on the 140-pound Amaro and said “there is very little doubt Amaro was struck by officers during his arrest,” according to the court.
The report also concluded that officers were derelict in failing to respond to Amaro’s requests for medical treatment, the court said.
Information from the internal affairs report was withheld from Amaro’s mother and sister, Geraldine and Stephanie Montoya, however, and they did not file the lawsuit until March 2009, after reading news reports of an FBI investigation into the incident.
In today’s ruling, the appeals court upheld a federal trial judge’s decision that a two-year deadline for such lawsuits did not apply because the delays were caused by the Police Department.
Circuit Judge Carlos Bea wrote, “The department’s continued stonewalling in refusing her request for department reports prevented Montoya from appreciating the full nature of her claim.”
The case now goes back to the court of U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco for a possible trial.
John Burris, a lawyer for Amaro’s family, said, “This is an excellent ruling. This was a tragic case of police conduct that denied Ms. Montoya the knowledge of how her son died. It was a horrible example of a police disinformation campaign.”
Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said, “It’s a very complex ruling. We are going to spend time reviewing it and looking at our options.”
The 2009 lawsuit said the Montoyas became aware in January 2009 of news reports stating that the FBI was looking into allegations that Police Capt. Edward Poulson had kicked Amaro during the March 23, 2000, arrest and directed his subordinates to lie about it.
Poulson was a lieutenant in charge of the undercover drug sting at the time of Amaro’s arrest.
He was promoted to captain and put in charge of the department’s internal affairs division in 2008, but then-Chief Wayne Tucker suspended him from that post in Jan. 2009 until the FBI investigation was completed.
FBI spokeswoman Julianne Sohn declined to comment on the results of the probe today, saying, “Our policy is that we can’t confirm or deny an investigation.”
Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Holly Joshi confirmed today that Poulson is currently an active member of the department, but referred further questions to Parker, who declined to comment on the matter.
The lawsuit asks for $10 million in compensation for alleged use of excessive force by police and alleged concealment of the facts of the incident.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News