San Luis Obispo County has paid $150,000 to a Nipomo family in a settlement of allegations that three sheriff’s deputies battered the family with excessive force following an apparent traffic stop in 2012.
The claim was 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 seeking damages for medical bills, lost wages and other expenses.
The settlement was approved by the county Board of Supervisors in closed session on Aug. 27.
“Liability was disputed by the county and settlement was reached after mediation without an admission of liability,” said Nina Negranti, Chief Deputy County Counsel.
One deputy, Steven Hurl, no longer works for the department after an internal probe determined that allegations of excessive force were sustained and that he had used improper tactics, according to a letter dated Sept. 25, 2012 and written by Cmdr. Jim Voge of the sheriff's professional standards unit.
Hurl was hired Nov. 1, 2011, and was "separated" from the department July 25, 2012, within his one-year probation period. Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla could not say whether Hurl was fired or resigned, citing personnel confidentiality. The two other deputies, Nate Paul and Emilie Voissem, are still employed after investigators determined their actions “were within department policy,” Voge’s letter said.
In a prepared statement, Sheriff Ian Parkinson told the Tribune, “This was an unfortunate situation. We have been forthright on the matter, and we took immediate and appropriate action to investigate this incident.”
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 also were in the vehicle.
As Ruiz pulled the vehicle into a driveway in the 200 block of East Vintage, 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 2012, 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, Ruiz was handcuffed. The two other deputies, Paul and Voissem, also arrived at the residence.
In the meantime, Rodriguez, Edward Gutierrez and Alma Gutierrez ran outside to see what was happening, the claim says.
One deputy — it's unclear who — kneed Rodriguez in the back, the claim states. The 27-year-old woman, who was recovering from cancer, fell to the ground “writhing in pain and causing her chemo wig to fall from her head,” the claim states.
Alma Gutierrez, 53, was kneed by one of the officers in her vaginal area, causing extensive bleeding, according to the claim.
The two women, and Edward Gutierrez, who was 23 at the time, 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 on his legs as well as hematoma (what medical dictionaries describe as blood collecting under the skin.)
Ruiz also appeared to be intoxicated, and told emergency room staff that he had consumed a 12-pack of beer, according to medical records in the claim.
James McKiernan, attorney for the Nipomo family, said Ruiz was not arrested or charged for any drinking offense, according to previous Tribune reports.
Rodriguez and Alma Gutierrez were also treated at the emergency room.
Ruiz was booked into County Jail about 11:45 p.m. and released about 2 a.m., McKiernan said.
Cipolla, the sheriff's spokesman, said in previous Tribune reports that 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.