monthly news and updates
MAY 21, 2021 | NUMBER 25
Dear Community Partners,
In this May edition of IOLERO's newsletter we will discuss the unsolved murder of Georgia Leah Moses and the Homicide Victims' Families Rights Act, an update on IOLERO's investigation of last summer's protests and the Community Advisory Council's (CAC) June meeting. Also featured is a Spotlight article on qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields police officers from liability in civil lawsuits.
Justice for Georgia Leah Moses
Georgia Leah Moses was murdered in Sonoma County in 1997 when she was 12 years old. The person who killed her was never brought to justice.

Many people have pointed out that Georgia Leah’s case was not given the attention it deserved because Georgia Leah was a Black girl from a family without resources and social support. A study by the Murder Accountability Project (MAP) analyzed FBI data and found that the percentage of homicides where someone is charged in criminal court has steadily declined since 1965. Notably, this decline in homicide arrests is most glaring when the victim is Black, like Georgia Leah Moses.

Angel Turner, Georgia Leah's younger sister, who remembers Georgia Leah caring for her and braiding her hair, has been pushing for answers in Georgia Leah's case including trying to trace and rebuild a reward money fund that was offered back in 1997, and correcting Georgia Leah’s name on the death certificate (it was erroneously reported as “Georgia Lee”). However, it has not been easy for Ms. Turner to get answers about Georgia Leah's case because even though the case is cold at 24 years old, it is technically still an open investigation.

Ms. Turner contacted IOLERO about various issues that have arisen in Georgia Leah's case over the years. IOLERO is working with Ms. Turner and the Sheriff's Office to address those issues and also to bring attention to Georgia Leah's case. During this process, IOLERO learned about the Homicide Victims' Families Rights Act of 2021. IOLERO put Ms. Turner in contact with the sponsors of the bill, Congressman Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Congressman McCaul (R-Texas) with the hope that Ms. Turner could lend her story and advocate for the bill while bringing attention to Georgia Leah's case.

On May 19th, Newsweek featured a story about Ms. Turner's fight for justice for Georgia Leah and the Homicide Victims' Families Rights Act. Please read the story here.

You may voice your support for the Homicide Victims' Families Rights Act by sending a message to your congressman. You can obtain your congressman's contact information here.
If you or someone you know has information related to the murder of Georgia Leah please call the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office at: (707) 565-2650
Investigation of the Protester Complaints
Recently, the City of Santa Rosa published an independent investigation done by two separate auditors evaluating the Santa Rosa Police Department’s (SRPD) handling of the protests last summer. One of the independent investigations was done by the OIR Group, an agency that offers independent police oversight and review. You may review the reports here:

Among the issues discussed by the OIR group was the legitimacy of dispersal orders to the crowd and the subsequent use of tear gas during the protests. The OIR group’s report mentioned that at least one of the tear gas deployments cited in a lawsuit involved the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. However, the OIR group was only investigating SRPD based on the complaints about what happened on the streets during the protests.

The complaints received by IOLERO about the Sheriff’s Office related only to the treatment of the protesters while they were at the Sonoma County Jail. IOLERO did not receive any complaints alleging that the Sheriff's Office used excessive force during the protests and IOLERO did not receive any complaints about the Sheriff's Office using tear gas during the protests. However, as a result of the OIR group’s report, IOLERO will be incorporating into our independent investigation a review of the Sheriff’s Office’s role in the deployment of tear gas during the protests. At this time, our investigator Anthony Hopkins has almost completed his review of the protester complaints which included contacting each of the 100+ complainants personally for an interview. Once the interview process is complete, we also will be reviewing the evidence of the dispersal orders and use of tear gas during the protests as it relates to the Sheriff’s Office.
The June Community Advisory Council (CAC) Meeting
At their June CAC meeting the CAC will be discussing their recommendations to the Sheriff's Office. You may recall that in the fall, Director Navarro recommended and the Sheriff's Office agreed to implement an overarching de-escalation policy. The CAC has been diligently working on drafting that de-escalation policy and it will be presented during the meeting. The CAC also will be presenting their recommendations on the use of force. Meeting will be June 7th at 6:00 pm.

Drafts of the recommendations will be posted at least 72 hours in advance of the meeting for community review. Community input on the recommendations will be requested during public comment. After the June CAC meeting, the CAC ad hoc meetings will finalize their recommendations considering community input and the recommendations will be presented to the Sheriff’s Office at the July CAC meeting before the CAHOOTS presentation. 

What Qualified Immunity Means for California
by Julie Morse at Watza Lab
Qualified immunity shields police officers from liability in civil lawsuits, creating a much more difficult path for plaintiffs to sue police officers in civil court. If officers are found liable in civil court, they’re ordered to pay money to the plaintiffs, which is dispersed from the law enforcement agency or the municipality, not the individual officer.

Qualified immunity, once considered an intricate federal doctrine that puzzled attorneys and upended civil rights cases, has now become a hot topic of debate as one by one, states and cities across the country are doing away with the 54-year-old defense that grants protections to law enforcement officers who are accused of violating civilians’ constitutional rights.

In California, qualified immunity is poised to be drastically changed with the pending passage of S.B.2. The bill won’t eliminate the doctrine that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls a “shoot first think later” approach to policing, but it will make it easier to hold officers accountable for violating someone’s civil rights.

Despite the body worn camera videos, videos from civilians and other evidence supporting a plaintiff's case alleging police misconduct, police officers are almost always shielded from a civil liability verdict under the qualified immunity defense. As a result, civil rights attorneys have limited interest in taking police misconduct cases and civilian confidence in law enforcement is continuously damaged because the growing community sentiment seems to be that police officers time and time again appear to commit unjust acts of violence and bypass consequences.

In Sonoma County, we’ve seen civil lawsuits like that of Andy Lopez or David Ward result in multi-million-dollar settlements, but those cases are the exception according to Karlene Navarro, Director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO). Navarro says that when a case like Andy Lopez’s reaches a settlement, it is often because the parties chose to settle before the qualified immunity issue was fully litigated.  However, most cases where a citizen alleges civil rights violations for injuries or even death do not make it past the qualified immunity issue.

“Qualified immunity was justified by way of the Supreme Court to weed out insubstantial cases, but it’s actually weeding out the most substantial cases,” says Joanna Schwartz, Professor of Law at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law and national expert on police misconduct. “Getting rid of qualified immunity would mean that there would be more decisions that interpret the scope of the constitution, which would give clarity not only to other courts but to police departments that are trying to draft policies for the officers on what they’re allowed to do.”

Qualified immunity shields government officials from liability for damages, even if they violated the Constitution, as long as they did not violate “clearly established” law. According to the United States Supreme Court, the law is “clearly established” only when a court held in a previous case that an officer violated the Constitution under identical circumstances. This standard is exceedingly difficult to meet. Schwartz explained this with the 2014 case of Alexander Baxter, who after burglarizing a house, surrendered to police by sitting on the ground and putting his hands in the air. The police still released their dog on Baxter who bit Baxter’s left arm multiple times.

Baxter filed a lawsuit against the police, and it made its way up to the 6th District Court of Appeals. A previous case from the 6th District Court of Appeals had found that it was unconstitutional to release a police dog on someone who has surrendered by laying down on the ground. Ultimately, the appeals court in Baxter’s case ruled that this precedent did not “clearly establish” that it was unconstitutional to release a police dog on a surrendering suspect who is sitting with his arms raised because the defendant in the prior case was laying down. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case.

Currently, the country is seeing the tide turn on this hair-splitting approach to police accountability. The aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and momentous Black Lives Matter protests of last summer have reigned in a legislative movement to reform and eliminate qualified immunity. Colorado, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York City have all either terminated the defense or have restricted officers’ qualified immunity in the court of law.

In California, the future of qualified immunity currently rests in S.B.2, a bill written by Senators Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Tempore Atkins (D-San Diego). The proposed legislation aims to create higher standards of police accountability and would revoke the certification of an officer who is convicted of misconduct or a serious crime. S.B. 2 also bolsters the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, making it easier for victims of law enforcement abuse to sue officers civilly. In late April, after a combative long hearing, the California Senate committee voted 7-2 in favor of the bill and it’s now set to be discussed before a fiscal committee and then a possible floor vote.

Napoleon Reyes, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair of Sonoma State University’s Criminology & Criminal Justice Studies department sees S.B.2 as reckoning with the “blue wall of silence.” He explained that if the bill is made into a law, plaintiffs will still have to prove that officers were intentionally violating their rights. What S.B.2 erases is the requirement to show that the violation was deliberate or spiteful.

“What this proposed legislation is intended to do is underscore the accountability aspect,” says Reyes. “I understand the pushback from law enforcement agencies. They argue that there will be a flood of litigation and officers will be more timid in enforcing law in fear of being sued. Sure, there will be litigation but if there’s baseless allegations then the court will throw them out.”

Reyes opined that ultimately, S.B.2 stands to improve relationships between civilians and law enforcement and will change police culture throughout the state. “If we are to be true to the model of serve and protect, which comes with great responsibility, then law enforcement should welcome this opportunity to hold those who violate the rights of others accountable.”
To read IOLERO’s other newsletters and updates, please visit our website.