By Jeff McDonald
Michael Keeler was at his parents’ home in Fallbrook in February of last year when he noticed four San Diego sheriff’s deputies walking toward the house.
He approached the deputies to ask what he could do for them.
Moments later Keeler was told they had a warrant for his arrest, and he was handcuffed and placed into a chokehold for allegedly resisting arrest, according to a new lawsuit filed against the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.
“Plaintiff Michael Keeler — an African-American man — was subjected to excessive force by a San Diego sheriff’s deputy, specifically, a chokehold, or ‘carotid neck restraint’,” the lawsuit states.
Three deputies stood by while one employed the neck restraint, the suit said.
Sheriff Bill Gore banned the use of chokeholds department-wide in June 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“Unfortunately, the incident was not isolated,” the U.S. District Court complaint said of Keeler’s arrest. “The San Diego Sheriff’s Department has a long and troubled history of its deputies using force against minorities at a greatly disproportional rate.”
Keeler was arrested and booked into jail. Keeler’s parents posted bail the next day and took their son straight to a hospital. He had bruising and swelling on his neck and injury to his wrists due to the handcuffs, the lawsuit said.
Keeler, who was never charged in the Feb. 6, 2020 incident and has no criminal record in San Diego County, died of an unrelated illness in June 2020. He was 32.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Lt. Amber Baggs said the department investigated what happened at the Fallbrook house and concluded that the four deputies did nothing wrong.
Keeler “was contacted as a possible no bail warrant suspect,” Baggs said by email. “During the detention, Mr. Keeler pulled away from deputies who were attempting to place him into handcuffs.”
The Sheriff’s Department said Keeler was found in possession of suspected Oxycodone and Xanax. Prosecutors later declined to file criminal charges in the case, but Baggs said that development did not reflect on the deputies’ actions.
“The district attorney’s decision to file charges is independent of the deputy’s probable cause related to the arrest,” Baggs wrote.
The lawsuit, filed by Keeler’s widow, Raychel, claims sheriff’s deputies were executing an arrest warrant for Michael’s brother when they wrongly arrested him.
Officials also have refused to release to the family any reports or body-worn camera footage related to the encounter between Keeler and deputies, the suit asserts.
It names as defendants Sheriff Bill Gore, San Diego County, the Sheriff’s Department and four deputies — Evan McCormick, Brandon Delima, Katherine Barajas and a Deputy Rose, whose first name was not included.
The 11-page federal complaint accuses the department of excessive force, failure to intervene, false arrest, battery, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The legal complaint also cites independent analyses that show the San Diego Sheriff’s Department’s record when it comes to using excessive force against minorities.
Specifically, the lawsuit refers to a 2020 study from the American Civil Liberties Union that found that for every 1,000 arrests, the department employed excessive force 217 times against Blacks and 110 times against Whites.
The complaint also cited a Los Angeles Times report last year that showed San Diego sheriff’s deputies led the state in causing serious injuries through the use of carotid restraints between 2016 and 2018.
The Keeler lawsuit also recounts prior excessive-force allegations against the Sheriff’s Department, including two cases in which deputies used a chokehold to subdue suspects.
It also notes that defendants Delima and McCormick previously were named in a 2019 lawsuit against the county.
“Defendant Delima was accused of using excessive force when he used his Taser six times against a non-resisting individual while defendant McCormick was accused of excessive force when he unreasonably applied a chokehold to the non-resisting civilian,” the Keeler suit states.
“The poor victim died the next day at the hospital,” it adds.
That case, filed by Dolores Rosales on behalf of her late son Marco Napoles, is pending in federal court in San Diego.
Keeler died in June 2020 from causes that were not identified in the lawsuit.
The Sheriff’s Department said deputies at the time responded to a Fallbrook Fire Department call for service for a man who was not breathing. The patient turned out to be Keeler.
“This death was not related to the arrest in February,” Baggs wrote in her statement. “There were no violations of law or policy by department members related to Mr. Keeler.”
The Union-Tribune reported in May 2020 that San Diego County was the defendant in at least 15 excessive force lawsuits filed in the prior year.
In the first five months of last year, the county paid $1.8 million to inmates injured in custody, people claiming to be arrested without valid reason and others who said they suffered damages at the hands of sheriff’s deputies.