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$24 Million for Motorist Detained and Killed by California Highway Patrol

In yet another case involving an unarmed, non-resisting suspect killed by the police, Edward Bronstein, 38, was five minutes from his home when he was pulled over by officers with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) on March 31, 2020. They thought he was driving under the influence, even though a breathalyzer test indicated he was below the legal limit for alcohol.

After obtaining a warrant, officers drove Bronstein to a police station near Pasadena to take a blood sample. He consented to the blood draw but hesitated when ordered to extend his arm; his daughter later said he was extremely afraid of needles, which explained his hesitation.

Multiple CHP officers then threw him on the ground, handcuffed him and held him down; although he pleaded and promised to cooperate, one officer told him, “It’s too late.” In what has become a familiar refrain in such incidents, Bronstein said at least a dozen times:

“I can’t breathe.”

He was ignored as the officers continued to pin him facedown, with at least one kneeling on his back. He became non-responsive and later died. His cause of death was listed as “undetermined” by the medical examiner, who found methamphetamines in his system.

Bronstein’s surviving family members, including his mother, father, daughters and sons, filed suit in federal court for the Central District of California, raising claims under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as state law claims of negligence, wrongful death, assault, conspiracy and failure to provide medical care. The defendants included the State of California, CHP and 10 of its officers. Also named was a nurse, Arbi Baghalion, and the nurse’s employer, Vital Medical Services, LLC, which had contracted to perform blood draws for the CHP.

The lawsuit accused the officers of using “excessive and objectively unreasonable” force, noting that Bronstein was “unarmed, restrained, and surrounded by uniformed peace officers,” so he did not pose a threat. Baghalion was accused of forcibly performing a non-consensual blood draw and failing to provide Bronstein with medical care.

The complaint noted that “keeping handcuffed individuals in the prone position, facedown can have a detrimental effect on the individual’s breathing and cause positional asphyxia, and [t]he risks of asphyxiation are magnified when officers apply weight or pressure to someone who is cuffed and in a prone position.” In fact, as early as 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice warned law enforcement agencies about the dangers of restraint methods that could result in asphyxiation.

Following mediation, the case settled on March 13, 2023, for $24 million – one of the largest payments in state history for a wrongful death caused by police officers. The State of California is responsible for most of the settlement, with Vital Medical Services contributing an unspecified amount.

That same month, seven of the CHP officers involved in Bronstein’s death, as well as nurse Baghalion, were charged with his involuntary manslaughter. They pleaded not guilty and their criminal charges remain pending.

“There was justice in the civil case – now we want justice with the criminal case,” stated Luis Carillo, one of the lawyers representing Bronstein’s family. “We want them to pay in jail for taking a human life. These officers had no reverence for human life. They killed an innocent man.’’ His Carillo Law Firm, LLP, provided representation to Bronstein’s family members from firm attorneys Annee D. Donna and Eric J. Dubin. See: I.M v. Doe CHP Qfficers 1-10, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:20-cv-11174.

As a result of Bronstein’s death, CHP has reportedly made policy changes that prohibit officers from using methods that pose a substantial risk of positional asphyxiation, also requiring additional training in that regard. Also, in Sept. 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law a number of police reform measures, including a ban on forms of restraint that can result in asphyxia. Regardless, such deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers – tantamount to extrajudicial executions, reform advocates note – continue to occur.  

Additional source: New York Times

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Related legal case

I.M v. Doe CHP Qfficers 1-10