A Visalia man is alleging in a lawsuit that he was the victim of a racially motivated unreasonable detention and search of his vehicle by an Atascadero police officer.
The lawsuit against the City of Atascadero was filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Friday by Visalia attorney Matthew Owdom on behalf of Kyle Bell. It alleges that the Atascadero Police Department “engaged in a pattern of systematic deprivation of the constitutional rights of African American citizens and other persons of color.”
Bell is suing for compensatory damages in excess of $25,000, punitive damages, “an injunction barring future conduct of defendants” and for a court-ordered appointment of a receiver or auditor who can implement new policies.
Claims made in filing a lawsuit give only one side of the story. The City of Atascadero has not yet filed a response to Bell’s complaint, and Atascadero Police spokesman Sgt. Caleb Davis declined to discuss pending litigation when asked for comment.
Bell alleges that on Oct. 21, 2016, he, his wife and their two young sons came to San Luis Obispo County to visit the beach. On their way back to Visalia, Bell parked his sport utility vehicle in front of the Atascadero Police Department, “thinking this would be a safe place to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette prior to completing the journey home,” the complaint says.
As he got out of the vehicle, Bell allegedly was “accosted” by Cpl. Rochelle Hanson, who began questioning him and telling him he looked suspicious, according to the complaint. Bell’s complaint described himself as a 6-foot-4 “very dark-complected black male” who “has never been in trouble with the law” and Hanson as “a white, middle-aged female.”
Bell alleged Hanson got in her vehicle and drove down the ramp from the police parking lot toward Bell’s SUV “at a commanding speed ... exited her police cruiser and detained (Bell) via coercion and show of force.”
Owdom said in a telephone interview that Bell was not physically restrained but the complaint stated that “a reasonable person in (Bell’s) position would not have felt free to ignore the presence of Hanson and to go about his or her business.”
Bell’s complaint alleged the detention was because of his race and “the fact that his wife appeared to be a white woman.”
Hanson allegedly “searched (Bell’s) SUV by looking inside the vehicle” and “accosted (Bell’s) wife ... and asked something to the effect of, ‘Why are you here, are you OK?’ ” the complaint says.
“The object of the detention and search was a clear indication of an unwritten policy enforcing a ‘Sundown’ town, in addition to historical official hostility to black male/white female interracial relationships,” according to the complaint.
After the encounter, Bell claims he returned home, retained counsel and filed a complaint with the City of Atascadero.
Owdom said he asked the Atascadero police chief to apologize to his client and for the department to release body cam footage of the incident. Neither request was honored, Owdom said.
Sgt. Davis said the Atascadero Police Department doesn’t typically release body cam footage to the public, but he added that “we’re trying to see if we can release something” in Bell’s case.
“I want to see what’s on that body cam footage,” Owdom said.
As part of the discovery process, Owdom said he hopes to obtain statistical evidence to show the Atascadero Police Department stops and searches non-whites more than it does whites “to point out that my client is not some sort of anomaly,” he said. Even if Bell’s case was an isolated incident, he said, it was an unacceptable one.
“If you don’t deal with these types of situations proactively, things aren’t going to change,” Owdom said.
The case is scheduled for conference Nov. 27.