Lawsuits have been filed in federal court on behalf of five people who allege Kern County sheriff's deputies unlawfully detained them and improperly seized their personal property after they used their cellphones to record a confrontation between law enforcement and David Sal Silva in May of last year.
All five plaintiffs are represented by attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who confirmed Monday evening the lawsuits were filed on Friday. A hearing to set a trial date is scheduled for July 7.
The plaintiffs are suing Kern County for damages in an amount to be determined at trial. The plaintiffs are Maria Melendez; her daughters, Melissa and Sulina Quair; and family friends Francisco Arrieta and Laura Vasquez.
Melendez and Arrieta witnessed the violent confrontation May 7 between deputies and the 33-year-old Silva and used their cellphones to record the incident, according to Rodriguez's court filings. Sulina Quair, in a 911 call during the confrontation, is heard telling authorities she's going to send the footage to news media.
Sheriff's investigators showed up at the apartment of Melissa Quair two hours later and demanded the cellphones used to record the incident be handed over, the filings say. Rodriguez has said this period stretched into hours and authorities wouldn't let anyone enter or exit the apartment.
The lawsuits say authorities "continued to harass, threaten, intimidate, pressure, unlawfully touch, and/or assault those present."
Eventually, all the phones were turned over to deputies.
Rodriguez said a jury will have to answer two principal questions: Did the Kern County Sheriff's Office have the right to keep people prisoners in their own homes when they're witnesses and not criminals; and, did the Sheriff's Office have the right to take people's personal property without their consent and without a search warrant?
Sheriff Donny Youngblood and Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations have disagreed with Rodriguez's version of events.
Nations has said authorities were justified securing the witnesses' cellphones because they were evidence in an in-custody death and it was important to prevent the potential loss or destruction of the information thought to be contained on the phones. He said the witnesses were free to come and go, but they had to keep the cellphones in the presence of deputies.
Youngblood has also said people were free to leave their apartment and were not held against their will.
Silva struggled with seven deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers who arrived after an initial report of an intoxicated man outside Kern Medical Center.
Deputies used baton strikes on Silva, but not on his head or neck, Youngblood has said. A canine was also used on Silva and bit him several times.
Silva, a large man, bucked deputies off and continued to kick at them. Deputies eventually took Silva into custody, but he experienced trouble breathing and died soon after.
A coroner's office news release said cause of death was hypertensive heart disease, complicated by drug and alcohol intoxication, abdominal obesity, chronic alcoholism, high blood pressure and acute pulmonary cardiovascular strain. The pathologist ruled the death was accidental.
Silva had amphetamine, methamphetamine and the muscle relaxant Phenazepam in his system at the time of his death, and a blood alcohol content of .095, according to the coroner's office. The autopsy concluded that Silva was not struck in the head and that no bones were broken.
Youngblood asked the FBI to conduct a parallel investigation into the case soon after the incident. Details of that investigation have not been made public.