An Oakland-based journalist has sued the city of Fresno for refusing to release documents from a 20-year-old case in which police repeatedly used a Taser on a man, who died.
The First Amendment Coalition said Friday investigative journalist Brian Howey asked for police reports in the Aug. 20, 2004, case of Michael Sanders, 40, who was Tased multiple times before he stopped breathing. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday.
The coalition says the records are subject to 2018’s Senate Bill 1421, which outlines what records police must make public, according to coalition Legal Director David Loy.
“When it passed SB 1421, the California Legislature noted the extraordinary power police have over people’s lives, and the enormous responsibility law enforcement has to exercise that power honestly and faithfully,” Loy said in a news release. “The city of Fresno is not exempt from this law, which was designed to lift the cloak of secrecy that historically concealed almost all police records from public disclosure.”
The city of Fresno does not comment on pending litigation, according to spokesperson Sontaya Rose.
Howey was looking for recordings and transcripts of police interviewing the family of Sanders after the use-of-force, the coalition said, for a Los Angeles Times story published March 28 called “After police killings, families are kept in the dark and grilled for information.”
Police interviewed Sanders’ wife, LaVette, after he had died but before they informed her that he died, according to Fresno Bee archives.
The city of Fresno refused to provide the records, saying they were not subject to the California Public Records Act because there was “no report, investigation, or finding of an incident involving the use of force against a person by a peace officer that resulted in death or great bodily injury,” the coalition said.
The Fresno County Coroner ruled Sanders died from cocaine intoxication.
The city also rejected the argument the records were subject to the public records request because officers caused “great bodily injury,” which is also outlined in SB 1421.
“Michael Sanders suffered from multiple puncture wounds and burns to his groin from being tased repeatedly by three officers and died shortly thereafter,” Howey said in a news release. “For the city of Fresno to assert this is not ‘great bodily injury’ is a grave insult to the public and common sense. What are they hiding, nearly 20 years after Mr. Sanders’ death?”
A federal court hearing a lawsuit from Sanders’ wife noted police used a Taser on Sanders 10 times. Five of those times were a “drive stun,” when the Taser is pressed against the skin of a person — in Sander’s case, to his groin — the coalition said.