A lawsuit filed by the family of Steven Juarez claims the seven Gilroy police officers who chased and subdued him the night of Feb. 25, 2018, illegally detained him and used excessive force while arresting the 42-year-old man moments before he died.
The lawsuit accuses the officers, as well as the city of Gilroy, of several violations of Juarez’s constitutional rights—including unlawful detention, excessive force, false imprisonment and denial of due process—and seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages. It also accuses the officers of wrongfully causing Juarez’s death.
It also claims the city was negligent in causing Juarez’s death, and failed to adequately train the officers who arrested Juarez.
Juarez died in police custody after officers responded to a 911 call reporting a suspicious person on the 7400 block of Chestnut Street in east Gilroy.
When police arrived at the scene, Juarez ran when he saw the officers, who eventually caught up to him and used a variety of force techniques—including multiple Tasers and a carotid artery hold—to keep him from struggling during the arrest. Juarez passed out when the carotid hold was applied, and was pronounced dead shortly afterward.
The family’s lawsuit says the officers gave “unlawful commands” for Juarez to stop walking in the area, and “physically beat (Juarez) with their hands, fists, feet and batons.” It also claims that when attempting to apply the carotid hold, an officer instead choked Juarez “in a manner that restricted (his) airway.”
“(Juarez) died as a result of the unlawful, unnecessary, excessive and deadly force employed by the defendant officers,” reads claim. The police acted, states the lawsuit, that Juarez was not posing a threat to the public or officers prior to his arrest.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court March 9 by Juarez’s mother, Martha Silos, his adult sons Steven Juarez Jr. and Andrew Juarez, his three young children and his wife, Catrina Molina. The plaintiffs are identified as family members and “successors in interest” to Steven Juarez. Lawyer Alfredo Morales filed the claim on behalf of the family.
Named as defendants are the city of Gilroy, and police officers Michael McMahon, David Ludden, Chris Silva, Jason Greathead, Martin Beltran, Diana Barrett and Kenneth Ellsworth. The city has not yet been served with the lawsuit, Gilroy Human Resources Manager LeeAnn McPhillips said. Gilroy Police Sgt. Jason Smith said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
The Juarez family’s lawsuit contradicts numerous points in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s investigation of the officers’ conduct, including the use of the carotid hold. A report of that investigation was released Feb. 22, and cleared the officers of wrongdoing or criminal conduct.
The DA’s review found that Juarez was highly impaired by methamphetamine during the 2018 incident, and continued to fight with officers through multiple stun gun shocks, baton strikes, distraction punches and other efforts to handcuff him. The DA also found that Juarez has a history of resisting arrest in Gilroy.
The DA’s office also released a three-minute video of the final moments of Juarez’s arrest, leading up to the carotid hold that left him unconscious. Cops said in that video that Juarez was still breathing after he fell unconscious, and sat him up in a “recovery position.” The DA’s report says the cops then called for paramedics and an ambulance.
The family’s lawsuit, however, says the officers “did not timely summon medical care or permit medical personnel to treat (Juarez) immediately.” This delay of care caused Juarez “extreme physical and emotional pain and suffering.” The lawsuit says Juarez died at the scene, though police and the DA’s office have claimed he was pronounced dead in an ambulance on the way to a San Jose hospital.
The Gilroy Police Department policy on use-of-force states that officers must call for emergency medical help immediately after any successful deployment of a carotid artery hold. The hold is intended to cut off the detainee’s blood flow through the carotid artery, rendering them unconscious—not to restrict the person’s ability to breathe.
The DA’s report includes a description of the county medical examiner’s autopsy report of Juarez’s body. This report does not list any injuries to Juarez’s neck, throat or windpipe, though it includes more than 20 blunt force injuries, contusions, cuts and scrapes throughout his body.
The Juarez lawsuit does not include exhibits or other evidence explaining why the family thinks he was choked to death. Morales, the family’s attorney, did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.
The family filed a claim for damages with the city on Aug. 17, 2018. The Gilroy City Council denied that claim, opening the way for the family to pursue damages in federal court with the March 9 lawsuit.
Juarez’s family is suing the city and defendant officers for unspecified “wrongful death damages for the violation of (Juarez’s) rights,” as well as “funeral and burial expenses, punitive damages (and) attorney’s fees,” according to the lawsuit.