Nipomo family alleges excessive force by Sheriff's Office in claim

clambert@thetribunenews.comJanuary 28, 2013 

A Nipomo man and his family have filed a claim for damages against San Luis Obispo County and the county Sheriff’s Office alleging that three deputies used excessive force against them following an apparent traffic stop last July.

The sheriff’s professional standards unit investigated a complaint filed earlier last year and sustained allegations of excessive force against one deputy, Steven Hurl, who no longer works for the department.

The claim — filed Jan. 15 with the county clerk-recorder’s office by Jesus Ruiz; his girlfriend, Ashley Rodriguez; his brother, Edward Gutierrez; and his mother, Alma Gutierrez — seeks damages for medical bills, lost wages and other expenses.

The claim is likely a precursor to a lawsuit. If rejected by the county, the family’s attorney, James McKiernan, said he’ll likely pursue a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Sheriff’s officials said they could not disclose details or documents related to the incident because of the pending claim, spokesman Tony Cipolla said.

County Counsel Rita Neal said the claim remains under review. The county counsel and county’s risk manager will determine whether to reject or resolve it.

According to the claim, Ruiz, 29, was driving to a friend’s home shortly after 7 p.m. on July 15, 2012.

Dressed in a tie and slacks, Ruiz had just left his grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration at a Nipomo church. Rodriguez and her young son were also in the vehicle.

As Ruiz pulled the vehicle into a driveway in the 200 block of East Vintage Street, Hurl drove up and parked his patrol car behind Ruiz for what appeared to be a routine traffic stop at 7:12 p.m.

In an interview with The Tribune in August, Ruiz said he was driving over the speed limit when he passed the deputy, who was driving in the opposite direction.

According to the claim, Hurl “without explanation, justification, or reason … proceeded to point a gun at Jesus, yelled commands at him, and requested backup at the scene of the stop.”

Hurl then shot Ruiz in the back with a Taser gun, elbowed him in the head, and clubbed the back of his thighs and buttocks, according to the claim. Hurl then shot Ruiz with the Taser a second time. At some point, he was handcuffed.

Two other deputies, Senior Deputy Nate Paul and Deputy Emilie Voissem, also arrived at the residence. In the meantime, Rodriguez, Edward Gutierrez and Alma Gutierrez ran outside to see what was happening.

One deputy — it’s unclear who — kneed Rodriguez in the back, the claim states. The 26-year-old woman, who has cancer, fell to the ground and her wig fell off.

Alma Gutierrez, 52, was kneed in her vaginal area, causing extensive bleeding, according to the claim.

The two women, and Edward Gutierrez, 23, were placed in handcuffs. They were not arrested.

Ruiz was arrested on suspicion of resisting arrest and taken to Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, and then booked at San Luis Obispo County Jail.

At the hospital, doctors noted that Ruiz had puncture wounds from the Taser, bruises on his left elbow as well as a decreased range of motion, and bruising and hematoma (where blood collects under the skin) on his legs.

He also appeared to be intoxicated, and told emergency room staff that he had consumed a 12-pack of beer. McKiernan said that Ruiz was not arrested or charged for any drinking offense.

Rodriguez and Alma Gutierrez were also treated at the emergency room.

So far, Ruiz’s and Rodriguez’s medical bills have totaled about $5,000. That figure does not include additional bills from medical providers, prescription medication costs, future medical treatments, and subsequent evaluations and treatment by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder, McKiernan said.

Ruiz was booked in County Jail about 11:45 p.m. He was released about 2 a.m., McKiernan said.

Cipolla, the sheriff’s spokesman, said the Sheriff’s Office later “asked that charges not be filed after a preliminary investigation because of the lack of evidence to support those charges.” Ruiz was never charged with a crime in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Alma Gutierrez later filed a complaint with Cmdr. Jim Voge of the sheriff’s professional standards unit.

In a letter dated Sept. 25, Voge said the allegations against Hurl were sustained. Hurl was hired Nov. 1, 2011, and was “separated” from the department July 25, 2012, within his one-year probation period.

“The sheriff determined that Deputy Hurl used improper tactics during the arrest of Jesus Ruiz but that the actions of the responding deputies were within department policy,” Voge wrote.

Cipolla could not say whether Hurl was fired or resigned.

Hurl, reached by phone Friday, declined to comment.

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