A federal jury has awarded $13.2 million to the family of a 32-year-old man, who was choked to death in a struggle with Anaheim police three years ago.
A federal jury in Los Angeles found Anaheim police used excessive force and violated the constitutional rights of Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Jr. when officers used a carotid restraint to subdue him on July 2, 2016. On Wednesday, the jury awarded the family the $13.2 million in damages.
The plaintiffs argued the city failed to train its officers properly in the use of choke holds to subdue a suspect. The officers involved in the arrest who were named in the complaint are Woojin Jun, Daniel Wolfe and Daniel Gonzalez.
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The lawsuit contended that Wolfe used an "air choke hold" that blocked the suspect's airway, a maneuver that is only appropriate when deadly force is necessary. The city's attorneys argued that it was a carotid restraint hold, which restricts blood flow to the brain, but not the airway.
Valenzuela repeatedly said he couldn't breathe during his struggle with police, the family's attorneys said. Valenzuela died eight days after his struggle with police from complications of asphyxia.
"We respectfully disagree with the decision and believe the judgment is unwarranted," said Mike Lyster, a spokesman for the city.
"Our officers responded to a family's call for help and took measured, reasonable actions in dealing with someone intent on resisting, fighting and getting away," Lyster said. "Our police have a duty to respond and engage, and their only other option would've been to walk away. That is not what the community expects of us when they call for help."
Lyster added that, "Any loss of life in our city is tragic, and we are the first to take a critical look at any encounter. We have done so and believe our officers acted in the best interest of public safety. We see a big disconnect in this result and what our officers and the community faced that day. Ultimately, this incident speaks to the devastating impacts of drugs on people, families and communities."
City officials have not decided if they will appeal the federal verdict.
According to a ruling in the case handed down by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney in June that denied the city's motion for summary judgment, Wolfe testified in a deposition that he "was not trained that the carotid restraint hold could cause injuries."
Wolfe also testified that he could not recall being trained on the anatomy of the neck, Carney ruled.
Jun, who held one of Valenzuela's arms down, testified that he didn't recall any training "about what to look for as a sign of airway obstruction during application of a neck hold," Carney wrote.
Gonzalez, who supervised the arrest of the suspect, testified that he didn't recall whether his training covered how to determine whether the carotid restraint was being applied properly, Carney ruled.
In September of 2017, the Orange County Distriect Attorney's Office cleared the officers of wrongdoing in the arrest.
Police responded about 9:15 a.m., July 2, 2016, to a report of Valenzuela following a caller's mother to her home and pacing in front of the residence at Broadway and Magnolia Avenue.
Valenzuela ducked into Coin Laundry at 221 S. Magnolia Ave. when he saw officers. He was shoving clothes from a duffel bag into a laundry machine as the officers questioned him.
When the officers heard breaking glass and saw blood, they suspected Valenzuela smashed a drug pipe, prosecutors said.
The protracted struggle with officers ensued as they attempted to take him down with a Taser, baton strikes and carotid techniques. Valenuela wriggled free at some point, leading police on a foot chase.
Prosecutors noted Valenzuela was 60 pounds heavier than Jun and Wolfe and they suspected he was high on methamphetamine.
The officers caught up to him, but Wolfe and Jun were exhausted by the time Gonzalez arrived on scene to supervise, prosecutors said.
Valenzuela was choked for about 15 to 20 seconds before snoring. Attempts to revive him at the scene were unsuccessful and he never regained consciousness, prosecutors said.
He had amphetamine, methamphetamine and cannabinoids in his system, according to prosecutors.
He also had a lengthy criminal history of drug-related charges, resisting arrest, willful cruelty to a child, domestic violence, burglary, theft, identity theft, driving under the influence of drugs and probation violations.
Vikki Vargas contributed to this report.