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$199,000 Awarded to California Detainee Assaulted by Santa Clara County Jail Guard

by Matt Clarke

On July 13, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California awarded a former Santa Clara County pretrial detainee $11,000 in damages for injuries received when he was assaulted by a guard at the county jail. The Court then charged the defendant another $188,340.08 in costs and plaintiff’s attorney fees in January 2022.

The plaintiff, Aaron Steward, was a pretrial detainee incarcerated at the jail on July 12, 2017, when guard Rico West, who was supervising the section of the jail where Steward was housed, smelled something burning. He ordered all prisoners, including Steward, back to their cells.

West then found a contraband homemade lighter fashioned out of toilet paper in a corner of the sundeck where he had seen several prisoners huddled, including Steward. Believing it belonged to Steward and his cellmate, West ran to their cell and opened it, without previously giving them any orders or calling for additional guards, which was in itself a violation of jail policy.

As he entered the cell, West then ordered Steward and his cellmate back against the wall. Steward started to comply, and West shoved him. After a second shove, the two men ended up in a “tussle,” during which West managed to throw Steward out of the cell onto the tier.

Once on the tier, the guard landed atop Steward, who was lying on his stomach with his hands behind his back as West knelt on top of him, putting his knees on Steward’s lower back as he pepper-sprayed him in the face. He then struck Steward on the head with the pepper spray canister around six times, causing him to lose consciousness. At that point other guards finally arrived and pulled West off Steward.

Aided by San Jose attorney Robert Ross Powell, of the Law Offices of Robert R. Powell, along with co-counsel Dmitry Stadlin and Sarah Elizabeth Marinho, of Stadlin Marinho LLC, Steward filed a federal civil rights action in the Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Santa Clara County, West, and other jail staff, describing the canister incident, as well as two others.

One, later that same day, involved Deputy Christopher Graham, who allegedly gave Steward an intentionally “rough ride” to the main jail. The other incident, on November 7, 2016, also involved West, who claimed he saw something sticking out of Steward’s rectum during a strip-search and allegedly ordered him to “get it out or I will.” That led to a nine-and-a-half-hour ordeal which eventually involved laxatives to make Steward have a bowel movement.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, which the Court granted in part on March 2, 2020, saying that Steward had not proved his allegations about the “rough ride.” The case was allowed to proceed, however, over the alleged threat that led to the laxative incident as well as the canister incident, both involving West. See: Steward v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36599 (N.D. Cal.).

After a three-day bench trial in July 2021, the Court held that Steward had not exhausted his administrative remedies in the laxative incident. But it ruled in his favor on the excessive force claim arising from the canister incident. The Court did not find West’s testimony credible, nor that of deputy Tony Alvarez and two other deputies, Benson and Vazquez. It noted that West contradicted himself multiple times and the others testified about Steward’s allegedly active resistance, even though they arrived on the scene after West had struck him with the pepper spray canister.

The Court then found Steward was entitled to compensatory damages of $10,000 and punitive damages of $1,000 against the guard for what it called “a shocking abuse of power” that left Steward with a deep laceration above his right eye and headaches he was still suffering.

The guard’s actions—entering the cell without first calling and waiting for other guards and then striking a prone and pinned prisoner with a canister—were “objectively unreasonable,” the Court said, violating both the detainee’s Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights and the Bane Act, California Civil Code 52.1. See: Steward v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130647 (N.D. Cal.).

On January 6, 2022, the Court billed costs of $8,222.58 to the defendant. See: Steward v. Cty. of Santa Clara, USDC (S.D.Ca.), Case No. 3:17-cv-01154.

Finally, on January 10, 2022, the Court partially granted Steward’s motion for attorney’s fees, since he did not prevail on all his claims, awarding a total it deemed reasonable for the “factually and legally complicated” case of $180,117.50. See: Steward v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4490 (N.D. Cal.). 

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Related legal case

Steward v. Cty. of Santa Clara