Taser incident at Sonoma County jail results in $1.25 million settlement
Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle an excessive force lawsuit from a Forestville man who was shot 23 times with a Taser while being booked into the jail on drunken-driving charges.
The settlement reached with Esa Wroth, 29, may be the largest police brutality payout ever from a county law enforcement agency to a person who did not die of his injuries, said Wroth’s lawyer, Izaak Schwaiger.
In his struggle with correctional deputies, Wroth suffered torn shoulder blade muscles, permanent nerve damage to his wrists and head trauma from direct Taser applications, Schwaiger said. He also has lasting psychological issues from his encounter, which was captured on a 29-minute videotape.
“You can’t get through anything that terrifying and not have scars,” Schwaiger said. “He’s fortunate not to have been killed.”
Wroth said he was happy with the settlement. He called it an important step toward “accountability for the violence that happens in this county.”
“A year ago I was looking at serious jail time,” Wroth said. “Now, for the exact same case, they are giving me over a million dollars.”
Supervisors finalized the settlement Tuesday by a unanimous vote, said Josh Myers, deputy county counsel. County officials admitted no liability and Wroth agreed to drop all claims against the Sheriff’s Office and individual deputies named in his suit, he said.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cecile Focha said it was an isolated incident. She would not comment on whether any deputies received disciplinary action.
However, she said it brought about procedural changes in the jail. Jail supervisors received training on tactical decision-making and deputies have been given additional equipment for restraining suspects during booking, she said.
“Ultimately what we really want with every law enforcement encounter is to minimize risk of injury,” Focha said.
The county has paid out millions of dollars over the last two decades to settle legal claims involving law enforcement actions. The largest was $1.75 million given to the family of 16-year-old Jeremiah Chass, who was shot and killed by deputies in 2007.
A jury awarded $100,000 to Kenneth Oberfelder, 35, who was shot and wounded by a sheriff’s deputy in 1996. A judge later ordered him to be paid $1.3 million in attorney fees.
Wroth’s case began when he was arrested Jan. 2, 2013, on drunken-driving charges. Toxicology testing showed he had a 0.21 percent blood-alcohol level, more than two times the legal limit, when he was pulled over on River Road after leaving the Forestville Club.
While being booked into the jail, he became uncooperative and resisted efforts to subdue him, jail officials said. Correctional deputies hit him to gain compliance and shocked him with Tasers during a struggle, they said.
Wroth admitted Tuesday he was “very, very drunk” but maintained he put up no resistance. He accused deputies of sadistic behavior.
“I know I drank a lot but nobody deserves to be tortured,” said Wroth, who graduated from Sonoma State University and works as a solar energy consultant.
An internal investigation concluded the deputies’ actions were appropriate.
A portion of the confrontation was captured on a video recording by jail officials, which Wroth’s lawyer posted on YouTube. Altercations between suspects and jail officials are routinely recorded for evidence purposes, jail officials said.
On the eve of trial, prosecutors dismissed resisting and assault charges against Wroth in exchange for his plea to an alcohol-related reckless driving offense.
Wroth sued in federal court, alleging a violation of his civil rights. He originally sought $3 million for ongoing medical bills. Wroth had two dislocated shoulders and had Taser barbs surgically removed from his body, Schwaiger said.
Schwaiger, who represents clients in two other excessive force lawsuits, called the settlement a “necessary evolution in cleaning up problems within the Sheriff’s Office.”
Attorney: Force used on Forestville DUI suspect was ‘torture’
“I think the county will be better off for this,” Schwaiger said. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned. But I don’t think the culture will make a serious shift until people start getting fired.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.