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Almost $1.1 Million Awarded to One-Legged Pretrial Detainee Forced to Hop to California Jail Cell

by David M. Reutter

After a jury in the federal court for the Northern District of California awarded $504,000 in compensatory damages in the excessive-force case he brought against the San Francisco Jail, a former pretrial detainee was awarded another $14,034.31 in legal costs on November 28, 2022, followed by an additional $564,152.24 in legal fees and costs on July 28,2023. That brought the total award for Vincent Keith Bell, 41, to $1,082,186.55.

The case dates back to December 11, 2012, when Bell, then 30, was booked into San Francisco Jail 2 (CJ2) to await trial on charges that he supplied a gun used in a murder. Bell is disabled; his right leg was amputated, so he requires a wheelchair. As a result, he was held in the medical unit at CJ2.

Bell put in a request to guard Andy Loung for a razor on January 14, 2018. Loung asked Bell how he would return the favor. After Bell asked what he meant, “Loung told Mr. Bell that he was beautiful and whispered that he wanted to see Mr. Bell’s penis,” Bell’s civil rights complaint alleged. “I don’t play like that,” Bell responded.

Bell filed a grievance alleging sexual harassment. That same day, Loung wrote Bell a disciplinary report for cheering during a televised football game. The grievance was denied on January 18, 2018, the same day Sgt. Yvette Williams ordered Bell to pack his property for a transfer to restricted housing due to the disciplinary action.

After Bell packed his belongings, he later claimed he merely sat in his wheelchair. But Williams alleged that Bell cursed at her, leading her to feel he was dangerous. She ordered a Special Operations Response Team (SORT) with eight guards to extract Bell from his cell. Williams claimed Bell had barricaded himself in the cell with his metal bed and mattress and that he had placed plastic over himself to “thwart the use of pepper spray and the taser.” Surveillance video proved that was a lie, however: It showed Bell was simply sitting in his wheelchair, waiting quietly for the guards.

When the guards entered his cell, Bell put up his hands to show his compliance. Nonetheless, the guards, who were clad in riot gear, ordered Bell onto the ground. They then applied pressure to his back as they handcuffed him, repeatedly yelling, “Do not resist!”

Once handcuffed, Bell was lifted to his remaining leg and ordered to hop from his cell to a safety cell. As U.S. District Judge Susan Illston later verified, surveillance video and other evidence showed Bell was forced to hop over 21 yards – a total of 64 feet – on his one leg. Williams refused to give him a rest, and Bell finally collapsed to the floor.

“Members of SORT then employed a torture tactic known as Strappado, wherein the deputies dragged Mr. Bell, who was face-down, into the safety cell by his arms, handcuffed wrists, and leg while he suffered in pain,” according to the complaint he later filed. Once in the cell, Bell was stripped naked and left for 24 hours.

Bell filed suit pro se in federal court for the Northern District of California in February 2018, refiling after his case was dismissed without prejudice later that year. Judge Illston reopened the case in June 2019, and in January 2020, Bell picked up counsel from Belmont attorney Andrew C. Kim, who was eventually joined by attorneys Dan Siegel and Emily Rose N. Johns from Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta in Oakland.

The case proceeded to trial, and the jury rendered its verdict on March 30, 2022. It found that Williams used excessive force on Bell, in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights; however, no resulting injury was found, so no compensatory damages were awarded against the guard. But the jury found that the City and County of San Francisco failed to properly train the SORT guards on cell extraction and safety cell use with disabled detainees, resulting in physical and emotional harm to Bell. For that, he was awarded $504,000 in compensatory damages. The Court added an injunction requiring Defendant to “modify its policies on safety cell placements and SORT cell extractions to require staff to consider reasonable accommodations … when transporting an inmate with known mobility issues.”

To that relief was added the initial award of costs in November 2022. In its final decision in July 2023, the Court swatted aside Defendant’s objections to rates sought for Bell’s attorneys, agreeing that “practitioner declarations submitted by plaintiff are much more indicative … of the prevailing rates in the field of complex civil rights and prisoner litigation” – and also citing by reference a case in which PLN won attorney’s fees from California, Prison Legal News v. Schwarzenegger, 608 F.3d 446 (9th Cir. 2010). Pointing then to Trevino v. Gates, 99 F.3d 911 (9th Cir. 1996), the Court added that it was “also not persuaded that the rates [paid to] defense counsel require a reduction in plaintiff’s counsel rates.” See: Bell v. Williams, USDC (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:18-cv-01245.

Incredibly, Bell is now in his eleventh year at the jail awaiting trial for allegedly providing the gun used to kill 26-year-old Stephen Reid. The accused triggerman, Montrail Brackens, 32, has also been awaiting trial at the lockup just as long.  

Additional source: SFist

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