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New Times / News

The following article was posted on October 2nd, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 28, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 10

County quietly settles excessive force claim

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

A claim resulting from a display of excessive force by a former San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s deputy has resulted in a very quiet settlement.

The Office of County Counsel confirmed to New Times that it reached a mediated settlement agreement with four claimants in August, resulting in a $150,000 payout.

In January, attorney James McKiernan filed a claim on behalf of Nipomo residents Jesus Ruiz, Ashley Rodriguez, and Edward and Alma Gutierrez following a July 2012 traffic stop. According to the claim, the family pulled into their driveway after returning from a birthday party at a local church when former deputy Steve Hurl blocked them in for what appeared to be a traffic violation.

What initially caught the deputy’s interest and other details of the incident remain murky—New Times hasn’t viewed dash-cam footage of the disturbance—but the claim alleged that Hurl, without justification, shot Ruiz in the back and side with a Taser. The claim asserts that after backup arrived, Rodriguez, a cancer patient, was kneed in the back—though it remains unclear which officer did this—Alma Gutierrez was kneed in the vagina, causing “extensive” bleeding; and all four were handcuffed and detained, though none was ever charged with a crime.

The document alleges that each claimant sustained permanent injuries, both physical and emotional.

Because of the confidential nature of the settlement, Deputy County Counsel Nina Negranti said she couldn’t comment on the claim, other than to say it was reached without admission of guilt by the county.

McKiernan told New Times he would have liked to see the lawsuit pursued further, but personal and medical reasons led his clients to accept the settlement.

“Despite what my expectation might be, you have to follow what the client wants,” he said. “They control the outcome of the case, and everyone is satisfied with that outcome.”

Sheriff’s Department Spokesman Tony Cipolla told New Times that Hurl, who was hired in November 2011, was still under an initial probation period when his employment was “separated” 10 days after the incident. For law enforcement personnel confidentiality reasons, Cipolla couldn’t detail whether Hurl was terminated.

In September 2012, following an internal investigation, Jim Voge, the department’s Professional Standards Unit head, sent a letter to Alma Gutierrez in response to her department complaint. In it, he admitted that Hurl used “improper tactics” in his handling of the situation, but exonerated two other deputies who were on site.

“In litigation, that’s a big no-no, but they had the courage to come out and say his use of force was excessive,” McKiernan said. “I think that’s a big statement about the quality of the Sheriff’s Department right now in how they’re taking responsibility for their officer’s actions. I think it says a lot.”