Man alleges racial bias in lawsuit against Pismo Beach police

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A Grover Beach man wrongly identified as a suspect in a 2012 burglary at the Pismo Beach Coach Factory store and later arrested and held for days in San Luis Obispo County Jail filed a lawsuit last week against the Pismo Beach Police Department, alleging officers targeted him solely based on his race.

Rayvell Snowden Jr., 44, who is African-American, was arrested in March 2012 following a burglary of about $12,000 in high-end purses.

Charges were later dismissed against Snowden and two other men also identified as suspects, according to court records, but not before officers kicked at his front door and searched his home while holding him at gunpoint, Snowden told The Tribune on Monday.

Last week, Snowden’s attorney, Patrick Fisher, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, alleging the Police Department engaged in a pattern of intentional racial discrimination in its investigations.

Snowden is seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages.

Civil complaints represent only one side of the story. The case has yet to be heard in federal court.

City Attorney David Fleishman said the city received the complaint Monday, but he had not yet reviewed all of it. However, Fleishman said he is familiar with Snowden’s case after Snowden initially filed an unsuccessful claim against the city in 2012.

“The allegations have no merit,” Fleishman said, adding that the city will fight the lawsuit. “I think the Police Department did a good investigation based on the information they had at the time.”

According to a Sept. 12, 2012, police report, officers were notified of a burglary at the Pismo Beach Coach Factory store. The report said that store employees witnessed three black men enter the store and grab about $12,000 in purses before leaving the scene in an older-model white Chevrolet Suburban.

The next day, the lawsuit says, Police Department investigators discussed possible suspects and identified residents Anthony Lamont Berry, 53, and Anthony Lamont Berry Jr., 33, according to Fisher. Detectives tried to locate the elder Berry based on addresses linked to his registered vehicles.

Officers did not find any of the vehicles, but at one of the addresses — an apartment complex in Grover Beach — they witnessed Snowden walk outside to smoke a cigarette.

On Sept. 18, officers returned to the address and again saw Snowden outside, Fisher said. They asked him for identification, which he produced, and briefly questioned him about a name he had never heard before, Snowden said.

Police interviewed two store employees who witnessed the burglary. Neither were able to identify Snowden as one of the burglars when shown a DMV photo of him.

On Sept. 26, 2012, officers obtained a warrant to arrest Snowden and search his home. Snowden said he heard his door being kicked and ran to open it as soon as the officers identified themselves.

“They stuck the gun right in my face. I could see down the barrel,” Snowden said, adding his girlfriend’s 20-year-old niece was home at the time. “It was terrible. She was crying and screaming.”

After ransacking the house, Snowden said, officers walked him handcuffed across the block in front of his neighbors to a waiting patrol car.

No stolen items or evidence of a crime were found.

But the case was forwarded to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, which filed felony burglary and grand theft charges against Snowden. He spent three days in jail, Fisher said, before posting $1,600 in bail, which he has just paid off.

On Oct. 17, 2012, citing insufficient evidence, the District Attorney’s Office moved to dismiss the case.

Berry and his son were later charged in the crime, and their cases were dismissed in January 2013.

Fisher said that police did not have any probable cause to suspect Snowden had anything to do with the burglary.

“The cops essentially only started looking at him because he happened to come outside and smoke a cigarette at the complex they were looking at — and he’s black,” Fisher said.

Moreover, Fisher said that when Snowden learned details of the burglary, he realized he had an easily verifiable alibi — coaching a 19-and-under co-ed soccer team 30 miles away before spending the rest of the night with his girlfriend.

Snowden, a disabled and retired Navy veteran, said he has a family member in local law enforcement and is not anti-police.

“But I’m in total fear of cops now. If I see them coming, I’m going the other way,” he said, noting recent police shootings of unarmed black men, including the high-profile case in Ferguson, Mo. “You look at Michael Brown, well, that could have been me.”

With the exception of a misdemeanor traffic violation in 1998, Snowden has no criminal record in San Luis Obispo County, according to court records.

Fisher said Snowden continues to suffer mental and emotional distress over the ordeal, as well as humiliation, anxiety and pain.

“No matter what a person’s ethnic background, level of education, or economic station in life, the insidious problem of racial profiling by law enforcement officers is all too familiar to individuals of color,” Fisher wrote in the complaint. “These kinds of acts are a reminder that, despite popular notions of progress in race relations, racial discrimination is a day-to-day reality for many in our society.”

A case-management conference has not yet been scheduled in the case.