Ten days before Judge Colleen Sterne will decide whether or not to approve a preliminary gang injunction for the City of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles attorney James Segall-Gutierrez filed a claim for damages Friday against Santa Barbara and its police department. Gutierrez represents six people whose mug shots were displayed when the SBPD announced an ongoing gang suppression effort — dubbed “Operation Falling Dawn” — at press conference on November 20.
At that gathering, Police Chief Cam Sanchez and police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood told reporters that 68 people had been arrested or cited, or their cases referred to the District Attorney’s Office, as a result of the year-and-a-half-long, multi-agency crackdown. The busts resulted in the confiscation of $72,000 in drug sale proceeds, several firearms, and moderate amounts of of meth, cocaine, and marijuana.
The mugshots displayed above a table of evidence, Sanchez and Harwood said, belonged to people who were either full-fledged gang members, associates, or drug customers. And the operation, they went on, was in response to an increase in severe crime and evidence that Santa Barbara gangs are now more involved with the Mexican Mafia. Chief Sanchez said his public announcement was not connected to the city’s proposed gang injunction, which has been tied up in court since 2011. Of the 68 arrestees, six were juveniles (not pictured on the wall), 18 were women, and four are named in the injunction. At the time, none of the arrests had resulted in convictions because many were in the process of going through the court system.
Now, two months later, Gutierrez’s two-page claim — the precursor to a lawsuit — argues Marci Estrada, Joseph Castaneda, Adriana Guerrero, Jessica Perez, Sergio Sanchez, and David Castro were “falsely and negligently” identified as active gang members during Operation Falling Dawn. The claim — which includes allegations of slander per se, negligence, libel per se, intentional inflectional of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and false light — seeks “in excess of $1 million” per client. Gutierrez explained the claim also gives city officials the opportunity to publicly apologize for Operation Falling Dawn and drop the gang injunction. If they reject the claim, Gutierrez says he has six months to file a complaint.
Suing public servants (like police officers) for slander is rare and somewhat unprecedented. Government officials have immunity to civil liability as long they are pursuing their duties. The question, therefore, could become if holding the press conference and publicly displaying the 68 names and photographs was within the scope of their duties.
On Friday, Gutierrez told reporters that none of his clients are active gang members, and that they had only been cited with infractions or misdemeanors. He said the fact that Sanchez named gang affiliates and family members was unacceptable. “You’re either pregnant or you’re not,” he said of whether a person is a gang member or isn’t. Gutierrez said his clients are young people — mostly in their 20s and all Chicanos — who are part of Santa Barbara’s working class. “These are people who are being affected in a very real way in terms of jobs and relationships,” Gutierrez said. Two of the claimants attended Friday’s press conference.
Claimant Marci Estrada, who has a 16-year-old daughter and a 15-month-old granddaughter, was arrested at the Milpas Street residence where she rents a room. She said she rushed home one day after receiving a call that police officers were raiding the house. When she got there, she said one of the officers was holding a bag of marijuana that he said he found in her bedroom. She was cited with an infraction and is in the process of fighting the ticket in traffic court. She said she does not have a criminal record.
Esterada said that ever since she realized she was named in Operation Falling Dawn — its announcement was publicized in a number of media outlets, including The Santa Barbara Independent — she’s been fearful, has experienced a lot of “unneeded stress,” and is worried her employer will find out she was among the 68 listed names. Her photo was not publicized.
Another client, Adriana Guerrero, who is 27 years old and eight months pregnant, said she found out she was named in Operation Falling Dawn via Facebook. “People are already talking about this,” Guerrero said. “They don’t even know me or my story.” Guerrero said she was driving her two daughters — now 2 and 9 years old — to the dentist one day in November 2012 when an unmarked police car followed her from her parents’ house near Elings Park to a street near Santa Barbara High School.
The detective, she said, detained her and called her mother to pick up her two little kids. She said she was taken to the police department where she was interrogated about her husband, 25-year-old Luis Jaimes. Guerrero said Jaimes is not in a gang and is being punished for associating with people he grew up with. “[The gang injunction] is going to affect a lot of people in a negative way. It is setting people up for failure,” Guerrero said. Guerrero is charged with three felony counts of accessory in aiding, harboring, and concealing her husband with the intent that he might avoid and escape arrest. Jaimes has a pending robbery case with a gang enhancement.
PODER (People Organizing for the Defense of Equal Rights) representatives and other community advocates joined Gutierrez on Friday as he walked into the police department to present the claim. Gutierrez had intended to file the claim at City Hall, but it is closed on furlough every other Friday. Gutierrez said he plans to follow up with city officials next week.
PODER representative Marissa Garcia, whose husband is named in the proposed gang injunction, spoke against legal filing. Several people vehemently criticized the order at the last City Council meeting, arguing it facilitates racial profiling and lacks transparency. Republican Liberty Caucus secretary Brandon Morse called for an accurate breakdown of which crimes the 68 people each committed.
“Cam Sanchez can’t even get the gang injunction in its own merit. In his eagerness, he has trampled all over these people’s rights, and that is unacceptable,” Gutierrez said. “He has to fabricate and sensationalize the stats so he could get public support for the gang injunction. That is unacceptable.” Gutierrez added the proposed gang injunction is a violation of the Fourth Amendment — which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures — and freedom of assembly.
“Gangs are an American phenomenon. Each minority who comes to this country has been marginalized by the dominate culture,” Gutierrez said. “It’s created mutual aid societies. That’s what gangs are, they create sub-economies. It’s unfortunate. My hope is that we will move beyond that and incorporate Mexicans who were here before this was America.”
Last Friday, Gutierrez filed a $10 million wrongful death claim against the city and the police department on behalf of 18-year-old Brittany Tacadena whose father, Brian Tacadena, was shot and killed by a police officer last Labor Day weekend.
Gutierrez said he plans to file more claims in relation to Operation Falling Dawn as he anticipates more people will come forward.