VALLEJO – The city of Vallejo has paid $120,000 to settle an excessive force lawsuit against several police officers who allegedly entered a home illegally and beat a man in his room in September 2018.
Rodolfo Lopez, who filed a lawsuit in August 2020, alleged that he suffered a concussion, a mild traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder after being punched and hit with a baton by police officers Travis Aspegren, Yanett Hernandez and then-Sgt. Steve Darden, who has since been promoted to lieutenant. A fourth officer, Jake Estrada, was also named as a defendant in the civil case.
Lopez claimed that he was on his bed talking on the phone with his wife in El Salvador when he heard commotion outside the room he rented. As he walked toward the door to investigate, officers kicked the door open and threw him to the ground, holding him down as they beat him, the lawsuit alleges. Lopez claimed he never resisted and had no weapons.
The city claimed that Estrada, who was on patrol, noticed an empty minivan that had crashed into the garage door of a home. The van had been left running and in reverse. Fearing someone was injured, Estrada waited for the other officers before they began sweeping the home.
“Estrada found what he believed to be a dead body in a bedroom, based on a lack of visible breathing or any response to the Officers’ loud announcements, and notified the other officers,” the city claimed in court records. The city further said that when reaching Lopez’s room he “refused multiple commands in Spanish and English to show his hands.”
Following Lopez’s arrest, the officers discovered that the person was not dead.
Lopez alleges that police stormed the home with guns drawn but without permission, a warrant or probable cause, violating his federal and state civil rights, including using excessive force, false imprisonment, assault, battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress,.
“The Vallejo police officers also appear to have been improperly trained or supervised and were negligently hired resulting in the unlawful entering a private residence and private room without consent, and use of unreasonable force,” the lawsuit alleges.
Reached for comment on Monday, attorney Kevin J. Heaney, who represented Lopez in the case, said that both he and Lopez “ were satisfied with the settlement reached.”
City Attorney Veronica Nebb couldn't be immediately reached for comment on Monday.
The city did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement, which the Vallejo Sun obtained through a California Public Records Act request.
Estrada has since left the Vallejo Police Department. The Vallejo Police Officers’ Association recently announced that Aspegren has retired from the force, while Darden has been promoted to lieutenant and been assigned as North Vallejo service area commander. Hernandez serves as director on the VPOA board of directors.
The city denied a request from the Vallejo Sun seeking investigative files under SB 1421, the state’s police transparency law. Officials said the incident didn’t qualify under the law’s standard of great bodily injury.
The settlement was approved in late March, months after Vallejo agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a separate federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who alleged that three undercover Vallejo police officers tackled him inside a church in a case of mistaken identity in November 2018.
Jose Villalobos claimed in his lawsuit, filed in December 2019, that he was headed to the men’s room inside St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church on Tennessee Street when several plainclothes officers approached him. The lawsuit names Vallejo police officers Jerome Bautista, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, Kevin Barreto, and Detective Jarrett Tonn, who shot and killed Sean Monterrosa in June 2020 and has since been fired from the department.
Over the past few years, payouts to settle excessive force and wrongful death lawsuits have threatened to cripple the city’s finances. The city council declared a local public safety emergency in October 2020 amid rising crime rates.
Part of that declaration also included a warning from the city attorney’s office that the city could face about $50 million in future payouts to settle ongoing lawsuits. Vallejo is currently facing about a dozen federal civil cases involving the city’s police force, including wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of men killed by Vallejo police: Willie McCoy, Angel Ramos, and Sean Monterrosa. The local public safety emergency declaration has since been lifted.
In early September 2020, the city agreed to a $5.7 million settlement with the family of Ronell Foster, the 33-year-old man shot and killed by a Vallejo police officer in February 2018. The city was required to pay $500,000 of that amount with the balance paid for by the city’s insurance pool.
A month after the declaration was made, it was reported that the city agreed to pay $750,000 to settle an excessive force lawsuit that alleges four Vallejo police officers assaulted a man as he worked on a fence outside his Tennessee Street workshop in July 2017.
Tired of paying for the city’s losses, the California Joint Powers Risk Management Authority (CJPRMA) raised Vallejo’s self-insurance retention amount from $500,000 to $2.5 million per claim in December 2017. The insurance pool also gave Vallejo 60 days to voluntarily leave the group – which the city did when the Vallejo City Council unanimously approved the city’s withdrawal from the CJPRMA in February 2018.
Vallejo eventually joined the California State Association of Counties – Excess Insurance Authority (CSAC-EIA)’s general liability II program following its departure from the CJPRMA.
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