Notable Civil Rights Cases

City of Oakland

 

Riders Case (2000-2014)
 

The Allen v. City of Oakland federal civil lawsuit was commenced in December 2000 by Jim Chanin, Julie Houk and John Burris in response to a pattern and practice of civil rights abuses by members of the OPD who became known as the “Riders.”  Eventually, one hundred nineteen (119) individual Plaintiffs, almost all of whom were African Americans, joined the litigation.  The Plaintiffs’ claims involved a litany of constitutional violations, including, false arrests, unreasonable seizures, false imprisonments, the planting of evidence, excessive use of force, falsification of police reports, racially biased policing and kidnapping.

“The Riders” scandal came to light when a rookie Oakland Police Officer blew the whistle on outrageous acts of misconduct which he claimed were perpetrated by Officer Frank Vazquez and others.  Officer Vasquez, who was reportedly the Riders’ ringleader, fled the country after the scandal came to light and remains a fugitive.

As a result of the Riders scandal, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office reviewed cases that could be linked to this pattern and practice of police misconduct.  That review resulted in the dismissal of a large number of pending criminal cases and numerous wrongful convictions were overturned.  Ultimately, the 119 individual Plaintiffs who joined the lawsuit collectively settled their damage claims with the City for $10.5 million dollars.

The City also agreed to enact and implement institutional reforms by way of a separate, non-monetary settlement agreement, known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA), to prevent the recurrence of the civil rights violations that gave rise to this litigation and to bring the OPD into step with contemporary, professional policing practices.  The NSA was the product of more than a year of negotiations between Plaintiffs, the City, OPD and the parties’ respective police policy and practice experts.  The NSA was entered as an Order of the federal court on January 22, 2003.

Click here to read the Negotiated Settlement Agreement.

The overall objective of the NSA was to provide for the expeditious implementation  of the best available practices and procedures for police management in the areas of supervision, training, and accountability mechanisms and to enhance the ability of the Oakland Police Department to protect the lives, rights, dignity and property of the community it serves. The NSA provided for initial oversight of an outside monitor to ensure the OPD’s compliance with the various NSA tasks. The Monitor would cease to be required once the OPD came into substantial compliance with the NSA.

The NSA was comprised of 15 detailed articles, divided into 51 Tasks, that formed the basis for the agreed upon reform program for the OPD. Among the tasks included in the NSA were reforms addressing problems with internal affairs investigations; supervision of officers; use of force; report writing; training; personnel practices; and community policing.  Pursuant to the express terms of the NSA, all OPD personnel were required to strive to act in full compliance with its provisions and the NSA required that acts of non-compliance by OPD personnel would result in corrective measures, up to and including termination.

Originally, the City of Oakland and OPD agreed to come into full compliance with the NSA within five years.  During that five year period, Jim Chanin and John Burris, both of whom reside in Oakland and were committed to ensuring that the reforms mandated by the NSA were a success, agreed to be paid at substantially reduced hourly rates with a cap of $5,000/year each, for their efforts to oversee and enforce compliance with the NSA.  As a result, Jim Chanin, John Burris and their respective staffs donated many hours of unpaid time toward the monitoring and enforcement of the NSA reforms.

When the City and OPD failed to come into full compliance with the NSA in the first five years of the agreement, the compliance period was extended for another two years.  During the extension period, Jim Chanin and John Burris received $10,000/year each at a substantially reduced hourly rate, to oversee and enforce compliance with the NSA.  Once again, they and their staffs both wound up donating many hours of work without compensation in their efforts to oversee and enforce compliance with the agreement.

Despite the fact that the City of Oakland and OPD agreed to fully comply with the NSA and had been responsible for drafting many of the NSA’s provisions, the City of Oakland and OPD chronically failed to come into full compliance with the terms of the NSA and a later, Amended Memorandum of Understanding (AMOU).  The compliance failures identified by two, separate Court appointed monitoring teams over the almost decade-long existence of the NSA/AMOU included the inability of the City and OPD to adequately perform everyday law enforcement tasks such as use of force report writing and investigation; operating an effective Internal Affairs department, including, but not limited to, considering all relevant evidence and ensuring that the outcome of investigations is based on proper evidentiary standards; tracking and remedying systemic problems, such as racial profiling; and implementing a reliable early warning system to identify problem officers so that early intervention and remedial action can be taken.

The OPD’s chronic failure to comply with NSA/AMOU reforms relating to these basic use of force and investigation tasks was also confirmed in an August 14, 2012 audit by the OPD’s own Office of Inspector General, which demonstrated that supervisors in the OPD were only paying lip service to their duty to investigate the use of force by their subordinates and that the subordinates were not receiving the training they need to be able to properly document their use of force. These chronic deficiencies were disturbing, particularly since OPD previously acknowledged the NSA/AMOU reforms were not extraordinary or impossible to achieve.

Even worse, an investigation by KTVU-TV in November 2011 showed that the City of Oakland had paid out more than $57 million dollars in the prior ten years as a result of police misconduct claims – a sum greater than San Francisco and San Jose combined had paid out during that same time period.

Due to the City of Oakland’s chronic failure to fully comply with the reforms mandated by the NSA and AMOU for almost 10 years and the fact that misconduct by OPD was continuing to cause untold human suffering and misery, particularly to Oakland’s minority and poor citizens, Jim Chanin, along with Julie Houk and John Burris, filed a motion with the Federal Court in October 2012 seeking to have a receiver appointed in order to force the City of Oakland and OPD to finally come into compliance with the reforms mandated by the NSA/AMOU.  Had the Court appointed a receiver, it would have been the first time a California law enforcement agency was placed into a receivership.

Instead of proceeding to a hearing on the motion and risking the possibility that the Court would appoint a receiver, the City of Oakland agreed in December 2012 to the appointment of a “compliance director,” who will have many of the powers of a receiver in directing the City and its police department to comply with the reforms mandated by the NSA and AMOU.  In fact, the compliance director will have the power to terminate the chief of police and demote the deputy chiefs if the compliance director decides this action is necessary to enforce compliance with the NSA/AMOU.

In March 2013, the Court appointed Thomas Frazier, the former Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, as the compliance director. In February 2014, the Court consolidated the duties of the Compliance Director with those of the Independent Monitor.  As a result, the Independent Monitor was given additional powers, including the power to review, investigate, and take corrective action regarding OPD policies, procedures, and practices that are related to the objectives of the NSA and AMOU, even if they do not fall specifically within any specific NSA task.  Hopefully, the City of Oakland and OPD will finally come into full compliance with the NSA/AMOU reforms.  However, Jim Chanin will also remain committed to diligently monitoring the progress of the OPD’s compliance with the NSA/AMOU and intends to make sure that these reforms are finally achieved so that the citizens of the City of Oakland will finally have the professional and Constitutional policing they deserve.

Click the links below to read a selection of articles on the rate of compliance with the settlement agreement: 

KALW News, October 21, 2010 - Explainer: Oakland Police's court-ordered reforms

KALW News, September 16, 2010 - Judge threatens to extend oversight of Oakland Police

 
Scott Olsen v. City of Oakland, et al. (2011-2014)

Jim Chanin, along with attorneys Julie Houk and Rachel Lederman, obtained a $4.5 million settlement for Scott Olsen as a result of the devastating, permanent brain injuries he suffered when he was shot in the head by a police officer with a so-called "less lethal" munition on October 25, 2011, during a demonstration in support of Occupy Oakland.  The lead filled "bean bag" round, fired from a 12 gauge shotgun, shattered Mr. Olsen's skull and permanently destroyed part of his brain.

As a result of being shot in the head, Mr. Olsen almost died and spent months in the hospital and outpatient rehabilitation.  Initially, Mr. Olsen was unable to speak due to his head injuries, and he continues to suffer from speech, memory, and other cognitive deficits in the aftermath of this incident.  Mr. Olsen will likely require life-long medical care and will never fully recover from the injuries he sustained in this incident.  Mr. Olsen was only 24 years old when the shooting occurred and the resulting brain injuries robbed him of what had been a promising career as a computer network and systems administrator.

There was no dispute that Scott Olsen never posed a threat to anyone and was protesting peacefully when he was shot  The shooting occurred because Oakland Police Department commanders allowed officers to use chemical agents to disperse the demonstrators, while at the same time, authorized officers to shoot bean bag munitions at anyone who attempted to pick up or throw the chemical agent canisters and/or other objects -- even though this violated the OPD's own written policies.  The foreseeable result was that officers shot innocent people, such as Mr. Olsen, who were not engaged in violent behavior.

After he was shot, Mr. Olsen lay on the pavement critically injured and bleeding from the head in full view of a line of police officers who were only feet away from him.  When concerned protestors ran to his aid, an Oakland Police Officer threw a flashbang-like CS Blast grenade in close proximity to Mr. Olsen and the people who went to help him.  The grenade exploded close enough to Mr. Olsen to burn his shoulder as he lay helpless.  Civilians were finally successful in carrying Mr. Olsen to safety and transported him ot the hospital for emergency medical treatment.  In violation of OPD's own policies, not a single law enforcement officer made any effort to obtain medical aid for Mr. Olsen, notwithstanding the very serious injuries he suffered and the fact that he was shot directly in front of a skirmish line of police officers.

In an independent investigation commissioned by the City of Oakland, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier found that "the fact that no law enforcement officer, supervisor, or commander observed the person falling down or prostrate in the street during the confrontation was unsettling and not believable."

A short video documentary about the case can be found here.

In concert with the National Lawyers Guild Bay Area Chapter and We Copwatch, Mr. Olsen is campaigning to ban the Oakland Police Department from using Specialty Imapct Munitions and CS Blast granades at demonstrations and other crowd events.  A video about the No Less Lethal campaign can be found here.

Estate of Amaro v. City of Oakland, et al. (2009-2011)

$1,700,000 was recovered by Jim Chanin, along with Julie Houk and John Burris, from the City of Oakland for the mother of Jerry Amaro III following an almost nine year-long cover-up by Oakland Police Officers about their conduct that led to Mr. Amaro’s death in 2000.

In March 2000, Mr. Amaro was arrested and savagely beaten by undercover, plainclothes Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers.  On April 21, 2000, Mr. Amaro died of the injuries he sustained during this incident.  Despite the significant decree of force employed on Mr. Amaro and other persons arrested during this undercover operation, no mention was made in any of the official OPD police reports that any force had been used by the officers.  Pleas made by Mr. Amaro and other arrestees to OPD that medical treatment be given to Mr. Amaro were ignored.  Mr. Amaro subsequently died in April 2000 as a result of his injuries.

In the aftermath of Mr. Amaro’s death, his mother made repeated, diligent attempts to uncover the truth about what happened to her son and who was responsible for causing his death, including in-person trips to the Oakland Police Department and a written request for the police report. Her efforts were stonewalled at every turn by the OPD. Indeed, her un-rebutted claim was that she was falsely told that Mr. Amaro had been found dead in the street, murdered by a gang or because of drugs.

Mr. Amaro’s mother became aware of the true facts concerning the homicide only after someone within the OPD with specific knowledge of the misconduct and subsequent cover-up leaked information concerning the case to the press in 2009.  Even after the lawsuit was filed, the City of Oakland and Oakland Police Department continued to conceal of the full truth about what happened to Mr. Amaro.  In fact, a high ranking member of the Oakland Police Department asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege and refused to testify about what happened to Mr. Amaro at a deposition. The Defendants further claimed that Mr. Amaro’s mother should have filed suit nine years earlier, even though their affirmative misrepresentations and concealment prevented her from knowing the true facts of what happened to her son.  However, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and the United States Court of Appeals for Ninth circuit both agreed that the statute of limitations could be tolled due to the OPD’s active concealment the true facts surrounding Mr. Amaro’s homicide.

 

Warrants Class Action (2008-2010)

In 2008, Jim Chanin, along with attorneys Julie Houk and John Burris, filed another class action lawsuit against the City of Oakland. This case arose from a pattern and practice by the Oakland Police Department in which affidavits with false information were presented to Alameda County Superior Court judges who signed warrants authorizing the Police to enter people’s homes and search their persons, belongings and houses.  Many of the plaintiffs were treated disrespectfully in their own homes and were wrongfully incarcerated for prison terms which in some cases exceeded one year. In other cases, the facts alleged by some Oakland Police officers went beyond mere mistakes and alleged outright falsehoods.

Ultimately, over 100 individuals were identified as class members in this lawsuit.  In 2010, the case settled for $6,500,000.

 

Smith Class Action (2006-2008)

In 2005, Jim Chanin, Julie Houk, and John Burris obtained a settlement in excess of 2.2 million dollars on behalf of Asian. women who were victimized by an on-dury Oakland Police Officer who committed acts of sexual misconduct after stopping the women for minor or invented traffic violations.

 

OPD Excessive Force Against Iraq War Protestors and Innocent Bystanders at the Port of Oakland

On April 7, 2003, demonstrators held a non-violent protest against the Iraq War at the Port of Oakland. Oakland police responded and dispersed the demonstrators by using so-called less than lethal firearms, running over demonstrators with motorcycles, and using other forms of excessive force. The OPD violence was not limited to the demonstrators as numerous longshoremen were either hit by gunfire or arrested. The OPD response was the most violent response to any protest against the Iraq war held in the United States.

Jim Chanin and his associate, Julie Houk, were attorneys on the legal team that filed a lawsuit against the City of Oakland. The case eventually settled for more than $2,000,000. The City of Oakland also agreed to a consent decree that dramatically changed the way the Oakland Police Department will respond to crowd control situations involving both political demonstrations and other gatherings.

The Oakland Police misconduct did not end with the events of April 7, 2003. During the course a deposition conducted by Jim Chanin, it was discovered that the Oakland Police Department had infiltrated a subsequent demonstration, and even suggested the planned route the demonstrators would take.

 

Other Cases Against OPD

Mr. Chanin filed his first wrongful death case against the City of Oakland in 1979 following the shooting death of a union member in East Oakland. That case was followed by a wrongful death case in 1985 and numerous other excessive force cases resulting from shootings, beatings, and police dog bite attacks.

Mr. Chanin and his associate, Julie Houk, also represented a woman police reserve officer who received a substantial settlement as a result of sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Jim Chanin and his associate, Julie Houk, successfully represented a father and son falsely accused by the Oakland Police of setting off illegal fireworks and resisting arrest at an Oakland Raiders football game.

Torry Smith sued the City of Oakland claiming that they planted evidence on him causing him to be incarcerated and face substantial additional time in jail.  Attorneys Ben Nisenbaum and Adante Pointer at the Law Offices of John Burris successfully sued the City of Oakland. The Law Offices of James B. Chanin represented Mr. Smith and the attorneys in a successful appeal to the Ninth Circuit which upheld a $3,000,000 verdict for Mr. Smith. and a $300,000 verdict for Patricia Grey, who was with Mr. Smith at the time of the incident. The Court also upheld a $200,000 punitive damage award against the officers and $100,000 award for related civil penalties.

$185,000 verdict was obtained with Julie Houk in 2009 resulting in excessive force and false imprisonment by OPD against a counselor who was trying to restrain a patient who had escaped from a board and care facility.

$175,000 settlement on behalf of a woman subject to sexual misconduct by an Oakland Police Officer while he was on duty.

Click here to read more about this case in an article from the San Francisco Chronicle (downloadable PDF - redacted).

$1,500,000 settlement following a jury trial for a man severely injured as a result of an encounter with the Oakland Police who suspected him of drug use.

$1,200.000 settlement recovered by Jim Chanin, along with Julie Houk and John Burris, for a woman who was severely burned and permanently disfigured when an OPD officer threw a flash-bang grenade into a private residence and it landed on the couch where the woman was seated.

 
California Department of Corrections
 

Jim Chanin and his associate, Julie Houk, have handled numerous shooting cases involving prison guards, two of which resulted in the death of inmates. One of his first cases was a $350,000 settlement as a result of a shooting  of an inmate at Calipatria State Prison.

Mark Perez was shot and killed by a prison guard at Salinas Valley State Prison on February 21, 1998. He was unarmed and shot pursuant to a California state prison policy that allows prison guards to “shoot to wound”. This policy was unlike any other policy in any police department in California which only allows the discharge of a firearm when the officer or an innocent party’s life is in imminent danger or when the perpetrator of a particularly atrocious felony is fleeing and is a danger to the lives of others.

Jim Chanin and Julie Houk were part of the legal team that recovered a settlement for Mr. Perez’s family after over five years of litigation with the California Department of Corrections. The case went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which largely ruled in the family’s favor.

Click here to read the 9th Circuit opinion.

Perhaps Mr. Chanin’s most famous prison case involved Vaughn Dortch, who had been confined to the “Violence Control Unit” at the Pelican Bay State Prison. Prison guards forced Mr. Dortch to bathe in scalding hot water resulting in massive burns to the lower part of his body. Mr. Chanin and his associate, Julie Houk, obtained a settlement of $997,000 for Mr. Dortch and his case was prominent in the Madrid case which resulted in significant reforms at the prison.

 

Richmond
 
Jim Chanin was part of the legal team that obtained a $3,000,000 jury verdict against the City of Richmond arising from the shooting death of two African American men in 1980 and 1982. The case received substantial publicity including a segment on 60 Minutes. Subsequently, Mr. Chanin was involved in three other wrongful death cases involving the Richmond Police and many other excessive force cases filed and/or settled with the City of Richmond.
 
Other Civil Rights Cases, Including Cases of Sexual Misconduct
 
Advocacy for Police Reform and Oversight

We can all agree that police officers’ home addresses, social security numbers, dates of birth and other personal information should not be disclosed.  However, California is the most restrictive state in the nation regarding the disclosure of the discipline imposed on police officers.  In California, local entities do not have to give the name of an officer who shoots and kills a citizen even if that shooting violates police department policy.  Almost all other police discipline is also confidential as opposed to discipline of lawyers and doctors (who are not public employees) which is posted on the internet and elsewhere.  When an officer is fired in most other states, the public who pays the officers’ salaries is informed and can read all about it.  Most Americans also have the right to access the disciplinary history of officers in order to see how their police are doing.  In California, all of this can be withheld from the public and it is often difficult, if not impossible, to obtain this information without filing a lawsuit and even that is not a guarantee of success.

Click the link below to read Jim Chanin's comments on the wall of secrecy protecting police officers who commit acts of misconduct in California:

Mr. Chanin is also available to speak to neighborhood and school groups and other interested organizations about civil liberties issues, police reform and oversight.