Palo Alto police sued for excessive force in 2018 arrest

May 7, 2019, 12:01 a.m.

In the latest of three excessive force lawsuits filed against the Palo Alto Police Department, a suit on behalf of Palo Alto resident Gustavo Alvarez is alleging that Palo Alto officers unlawfully threatened, searched, beat and arrested him while denying him medical care for injuries sustained during their assault.

Alvarez, who is openly gay, claims that the arrest was motivated by prejudice against his sexual orientation rather than the charge from the police of driving without a license. A Santa Clara county judge later dropped this charge along with two others.

The civil rights lawsuit claims over 10 million dollars in damages from both the city of Palo Alto and individual officers. It states that unbeknownst to arresting officers, Alvarez was able to capture home surveillance camera footage of several officers hitting him, slamming him into a car, knocking one of his teeth loose and leaving him bloody. He later pulled out the tooth himself in local jail because he was too nervous to ask for medical help.

Lawyers for Alvarez contend that the arresting police officers chose to beat and threaten Alvarez because of his sexual orientation and that the arrest was motivated by “hatred and prejudice of homosexual males” rather than the law.

According to the lawsuit, the encounter began in the driveway of Alvarez’s mobile home on Feb.17, 2018. Police officer Christopher Conte approached Alvarez intending to detain him for driving on the highway with a suspended license.

Upon hearing that Conte could not conclusively tell whether he had actually seen Alvarez driving on the roadway, the complaint continues, Alvarez decided the visit was unwarranted and went inside his house. After Alvarez closed the door, Conte called reinforcements to the mobile home park. The group of officers grew upset at what they perceived as Alvarez resisting arrest, yelling expletives in attempt to force Alvarez out of his house.  

The officers allegedly decided to storm Alvarez’s residence at gunpoint, kicking down the door and dragging Alvarez to his car.

Officers allegedly slammed his face into the hood of the vehicle and taunted him, “So you think you’re a tough guy, huh?” When Alvarez exclaimed, “Oh my God, I’m bleeding!” one officer replied, “You’re gonna be bleeding a whole lot more!”

Sergeant Wayne Benitez, the officer who purportedly led the taunting, allegedly used the example as a teaching moment, telling junior officers present, “See how quickly they behave once we put our foot down? And that’s what we don’t do enough of.”

Eventually, Alvarez was booked into jail on charges of driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license and resisting an officer. A Santa Clara County Judge dismissed the charges due to lack of evidence, charges which Alvarez claims were fabricated by the police to justify a raid on his home and his arrest.

This is not Alvarez’s first encounter with Palo Alto police. According to Palo Alto Weekly, Alvarez was arrested in 2012 after attempting to use a satellite dish cable to rappel through a skylight into the JJ&F Market on College Avenue. Alvarez claims in his lawsuit that he specifically installed surveillance cameras at his mobile home due to a troubled history with Palo Alto police officers.

This incident is also not the first time the Palo Alto police department has faced legal ramifications for similar uses of alleged unreasonable force. The department paid $250,000 to Los Altos Hills resident Tyler Harney after a 2014 incident in which officers slammed him into his car hood after stopping the car in which he was a passenger for a traffic violation. Harney suffered an epileptic seizure that officers viewed as an attack against them; they then denied him treatment in jail for a serious shoulder injury sustained after officers twisted his arm behind his back and broke it. In a 2011 incident, the department paid $35,000 after police tasered Joseph Ciampi after he refused to leave the van in which he lived.

At present, a police department spokeswoman declined to say whether the police officers are still employed while the matter is under impending litigation. The surveillance camera footage has not been released to the public.

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’

Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck, and contact him at cveit 'at'

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