Nineteen students and alumni from the University of California at Davis have filed a lawsuit in federal court against various university administrators and police officials, including Chancellor Linda Katehi and Police Lieutenant John Pike. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is assisting them with the suit, which includes claims of federal civil rights violations and California constitutional and statutory violations. Their claims arise from the now-infamous incident, captured on video and posted across the internet, in which Lieutenant Pike shot pepper spray at point-blank range at people involved in the Occupy protests last November. Although the lawsuit primarily addresses alleged violations of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, injuries sustained in the incident are highly relevant to their case.
The incident occurred on November 18, 2011. Although the specific course of events is still a matter of debate, video footage shows Lieutenant Pike and other police officers spraying pepper spray at a group of seated protesters from a distance of only a few feet. The protesters were seated in a close group on the ground and were not armed. Lieutenant Pike and Police Chief Annette Spicuzza were suspended with pay shortly after the incident and reportedly remain on suspension.
The university administration appointed a task force to investigate the matter. We reported in this Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog last month that the task force had decided not to release its findings until at least February. Now the task force has reportedly announced that it will continue to withhold its findings into March.
The plaintiffs, all of whom were participants in the protest on November 18, filed suit on February 22, 2012. The lawsuit seeks various declarations from the court regarding the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and the defendants’ violations thereof, as well as compensatory and punitive damages from the police officers involved. Plaintiffs also demand changes to unviersity policies related to responding to protests. They claim injuries related to the pepper spray and arrests, including “burning eyes, faces and skin,” and injuries related to the zip ties used to cuff their hands.
Plaintiffs allege that university police were using “military grade” pepper spray. Manufacturer’s instructions for the type of pepper spray used indicates a minimum safe distance of six feet to avoid serious injury. Plaintiffs allege that the police were standing much closer to the protesters on November 18 when they sprayed them. This amounted to a violation of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, plaintiffs say in their complaint, but it also caused significant injury and damage.