Courts

Former Rocklin officer seeks qualified immunity from excessive force suit

ROCKLIN, Calif. — A former Rocklin police officer, who was previously acquitted of using excessive force when he beat a DUI suspect with his baton, seeks to invoke qualified immunity in a lawsuit over similar allegations.

Brad Alford said through a lawyer recently that his actions in a 2017 arrest were “objectively reasonable” and moved for protection under qualified immunity – a controversial judicial precedent that serves to shield public officials from liability in civil lawsuits. The practice, while heavily criticized by some, has been invoked by several high-profile officials named in lawsuits, including former Attorney General William Barr.

“This doctrine, invented by the Court out of whole cloth, immunizes public officials even when they commit legal misconduct unless they violated ‘clearly established law’,” Forbes opinion contributor George Leef previously wrote. “That standard is incredibly difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to overcome because the courts have required not just a clear legal rule, but a prior case on the books with functionally identical facts.”

Alford was charged in 2019 with three felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon, for striking an unarmed DUI suspect, Emilio Chavez, with his baton numerous times. Alford was placed on administrative leave and later fired.

Body camera video released by the Placer County District Attorney’s Office shows Alford cursing at Chavez, who held his hands up and began to drop to his knees after stopping his car in an apartment complex, before striking him dozens of times with his baton. Chavez can be heard screaming on the video.

“What I saw in the video appeared excessive to me, and that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated,” then-chief Chad Butler said at a news conference on Alford’s arrest.

Despite condemnation of Alford’s actions from his superiors and many in the community, a jury found him not guilty on all charges in May of 2019 following a two-week trial. Alford’s legal team, who claimed Chavez was a gang member, argued that the former officer used his baton in self-defense after the suspect began kicking in his direction.

“This case represented a severe overreaction by both the Rocklin Police Department and the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, fueled by the sensational nature of the video of the incident,” Alford’s lawyers said in a statement. “Fortunately for Brad Alford, and to their great credit, the jury paid attention to the facts and followed the law in quickly rejecting these serious charges.”

Three months after Alford’s acquittal, another man filed a federal lawsuit against him. Kristopher Stowe, a Rocklin resident, claimed he fell asleep on the sidewalk after going for a walk following an argument with his girlfriend’s father. When he awoke, the suit claims, Alford stood over him and attempted to throw him to the ground as he went to get up.

A scuffle ensued, Stowe was struck in the face several times, and was thrown into the back of Alford’s squad car – landing awkwardly inside of it. Alford then pulled him out feet-first and dropped him on the ground. When Stowe was taken to the hospital, he says, Alford grabbed him by the neck and pushed him into a chair.

In an arrest report written by Alford, the former officer said Stowe appeared to be intoxicated, was soaking wet, and “began pulling away” and “spinning towards” Alford as he tried to cuff him, starting the scuffle on the ground, during which Alford claims his body camera fell off.

Alford claimed Stowe attempted to kick him in the patrol vehicle several times, and that he pushed his chest when the man abruptly got up and began moving towards him in the hospital. During the push, Alford says, his hand “slid up his chest and to his throat” inadvertently.

Eventually, Stowe was booked, and Alford forwarded his report to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, who declined to file charges against Stowe in the interest of justice.

In a motion filed last week, Alford’s lawyers contended that Stowe “seriously mischaracterizes” what can be seen and heard on body camera video of the incident and argued that the force Alford used was reasonable given the circumstances.

“In this case, defendant Alford was confronted with an entirely different set of circumstances,” attorney John Whitefleet wrote in a brief. “He faced a highly intoxicated suspect who: failed to cooperate with defendant Alford’s investigation or with the medics, expressed his intent to leave the scene, resisted arrest, and committed battery upon a police officer.”

Alford will return to the Robert Matsui federal courthouse in February, where a judge will rule on his motion for summary judgement and qualified immunity. If the judge rules in favor of Stowe, the possibility of a civil trial looms if the parties are unable to settle out of court.

Ethan Biando
Ethan Biando is a freelance journalist from Sacramento. His writing focuses on crime, courts, and policing. Find him on Twitter @ethanb822

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