The family of a man who died after being beaten by Kern County Sheriff's deputies and attacked by a police dog have filed a federal civil rights claim against the officers involved, the department and other agencies, a precursor to a lawsuit.
The death of David Silva — which a Kern County autopsy report said was accidental due to hypertensive heart disease — garnered widespread attention because of the number of witnesses to the beating who stepped forward and because officers later detained two witnesses until they turned over their cellphones with video recordings.
One of those phones was later found to have no recording of the incident.
The wrongful-death claim was filed against the nine officers who were at the scene, the Kern County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol, Kern County, and the state of California.
The claim states that two Highway Patrol officers watched the beating by sheriff's deputies, failed to intervene and were later involved in cover-up attempts. It alleges that the Highway Patrol and state had notice of prior misconduct by the two officers.
On the night of May 7, Silva, 33, fell asleep on the grounds of Mary K. Shell Mental Hospital in Bakersfield. A security guard told him he couldn't sleep there and walked him off the property.
Silva went across the street and was asleep on the corner of Flower Street and Palm Street when a sheriff's deputy woke him up by pressing knuckles into his chest. Authorities said Silva resisted arrest during a scene that involved six deputies, a sergeant, the two California Highway Patrol officers and a K-9 dog.
Five witnesses told the Los Angeles Times that they saw Silva kicked, beaten with batons and hog-tied while screaming and pleading for his life. Several said he was hit in the head, a claim disputed by the autopsy report.
At a May 23 news conference announcing the results of the autopsy report, Sheriff Donny Youngblood said that only three officers had hit Silva and that the blows had been to the midsection and were not fatal. He said Silva had taken a "rigid stance" and had tried to strangle the police dog after it bit both him and the police handler.
A toxicology report showed that Silva had 210 nanograms of methamphetamine per millimeter of blood in his system — closer to levels of prescribed medicine than street-level use. His blood-alcohol level was 0.095.
The autopsy report listed acute intoxication, alcoholism, severe abdominal obesity, hypertension and pulmonary cardiovascular strain as contributing factors to death. It did not list the beating as a factor.
Youngblood said the autopsy report showed the death was accidental.
"I think the media caused a lot of this hysteria that occurred in this community," he said.
An attorney for Kern County told the Bakersfield Californian the claim was inappropriate in light of the coroner's report.
"[Silva] essentially had cardiac arrest because of the amount of exertion he was putting into resisting the police," Mark Nations, chief deputy counsel for litigation, told the Bakersfield paper. "Based on the information I have, I think law enforcement handled the situation as best they could under the circumstances."
The claim was filed on behalf of Silva's significant other, four children all under the age of 10, parents and brother and seeks damages in excess of $10,000.