San Francisco Chronicle | March 21, 2016, 4:50PM
A Petaluma woman who suffered facial swelling, bruising and black eyes from an encounter with a sheriff’s deputy is accusing the Sonoma County district attorney’s office of retaliating against her for filing an excessive force claim.
The “unusual case and unusual proceeding,” as a judge called it last week, could put Sonoma County prosecutors on the witness stand as they answer for why they charged the woman, 19-year-old Gabrielle Lemos, with resisting arrest one day after she filed her lawsuit against the county — and weeks after they initially declined to file charges.
At issue is whether the misdemeanor charge against Lemos amounts to vindictive prosecution. While the criminal charge is pending, she cannot proceed with the civil suit she filed in federal court, according to her attorney, Izaak Schwaiger, who called the district attorney’s move to charge “unethical” and “a desperation play.”
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch — who was not directly involved in the decision to charge Lemos — said the vindictive prosecution allegation, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court in response to the charge, was “baseless.”
The case dates back to June 13, the night of a party for Lemos celebrating her graduation from Petaluma High School, when she got between a sheriff’s deputy and one of her sisters, Karli Labruzzi.
The deputy, Marcus Holton, pulled up to the Lemos family home to investigate a possible domestic violence situation involving Labruzzi and her boyfriend, who were sitting outside the house in a truck. Holton questioned the boyfriend outside the vehicle and then, according to the federal complaint, dragged Labruzzi off the passenger’s seat.
Lemos ran up to Holton and said her sister’s rights were violated by being yanked out of the truck without cause, and demanded that a female officer be present, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that Holton then shoved Lemos backward and told her that no one else was coming. Family members tried to defuse the situation, and Lemos’ mother told her to get back inside the house.
But as Lemos was walking up the driveway toward the house, the lawsuit said, Holton grabbed her from behind, put her in a choke hold, then lifted her off the ground and tossed her face-first onto the driveway.
“Deputy Holton put his knee in the back of Gabbi’s head and began grinding her face into the gravel, despite her screams and her family’s pleas to stop,” the complaint alleged. “Deputy Holton yelled ‘Stop resisting!’ as blood pooled on the ground under Gabbi’s face.”
In court filings, Holton’s attorneys denied the characterization of the altercation.
Lemos was handcuffed, transported to a hospital, then jailed on suspicion of resisting arrest and battery on a peace officer.
Photos taken at the hospital and in the following days showed swelling and bruising to Lemos’ face.
Holton, who previously came under fire for shooting a man in 2011 because he suspected the man was reaching into his waistband for a weapon, remains on patrol as a deputy.
After three court appearances, the district attorney’s office declined to charge Lemos. In September, she was told the case had been rejected for filing.
But on Nov. 13, the day after Lemos filed her federal complaint — which named the county, the sheriff and Holton as defendants — the district attorney’s office filed one misdemeanor count of resisting arrest against her, putting the civil case on ice, Schwaiger said.
Ravitch said that members of her office made the decision to charge Lemos in early October and that there is a paper trail to back it up.
But Schwaiger alleged the criminal charge was a direct response to his client’s excessive-force complaint and not based on further investigation. The district attorney’s office admitted it received all the evidence in August.
“There’s no other possible reason,” Schwaiger said. “They had to reverse-engineer some justification.”
Last week, as first reported by the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, a Sonoma County Superior Court judge heard arguments in the vindictive prosecution claim, which the district attorney’s office attempted to quash out of concern that prosecutors’ work-product privilege would be violated if they were forced to testify.
Judge Gary Medvigy on Wednesday decided to allow prosecutors to testify under subpoena for why they charged Lemos when they did, saying the timing of their actions can’t be ignored.
“It’s a question of fact as to when the decision was made by the D.A.’s office, and why it was made, because that’s the crux of the defense motion, that it was made for vindictive purpose,” Medvigy said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “So I’m going to hear the evidence. I’m going to pierce the privilege.”
The district attorney’s office is now appealing Medvigy’s decision to a three-judge Sonoma County panel.
The proceedings have the potential to set a legal precedent in the county for the degree to which prosecutors can retain their work-product privilege, which shields materials attorneys use to prepare for litigation.
The next hearing is scheduled for April 13.
Kimberly Veklerov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kveklerov
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