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San Francisco Chronicle/Bob Egelko

A federal appeals court on Thursday allowed the family of a Pittsburg man to sue the city and its police over a fatal struggle in which an officer choked the man and two officers knelt on his back until he lost consciousness. …

[In July, 2016, officers tried to pull over Beto Martinez in his car to issue a ticket for an expired registration.  Martinez drove around the block and ran back into the house from which officers had seen him leave minutes earlier.  Inside, one officer used a choke hold on Martinez while other officers punched, kneed, stomped, tased, and restrained him.  Officers admitted that Martinez never punched or struck them.  After Martinez was handcuffed and became limp, more officers knelt on his back and his neck for up to two minutes.  Mr. Martinez sustained multiple injuries including a fractured Adam’s Apple and sixteen broken ribs.  Two officers injured their wrists by punching Martinez.  Martinez died from asphyxia from the choke hold and his injuries.]

Lawyers for the city argued that the officers had acted reasonably. But U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg of San Francisco ruled in March 2019 that the family could go to trial with claims of excessive force against the officers and inadequate training by the city.

“A fact-finder could reasonably conclude based on Martinez’s level of resistance, the rather minor nature of the underlying offense, and the overall circumstances of the struggle, that the officers’ use of force was excessive,” Seeborg said.

[On the eve of trial, the City and officers appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the Court for legal ‘breathing room’ from the civil rights claims and seeking qualified immunity from trial.]

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld Seeborg’s ruling Thursday. A reasonable jury could find that the combined force used against Martinez was excessive and that each officer, including those who entered later, was involved in the use of excessive force, the three-judge panel said.

Michael Haddad, a lawyer for the family, said the incident had echoes of the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York, but in Martinez’s case “it’s the officers who had the nerve to ask the court to give them some legal ‘breathing room.’

“Beto Martinez’s children will now be able to hold the officers who killed their father accountable at trial,” Haddad said.

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