Lance Black image from LinkedIn and complaint against San Diego police and county Sheriff’s Department. Times of San Diego photo illustration

An East County pastor is suing the San Diego Police Department, Sheriff’s Department and many officers for $10 million, alleging “violation of civil rights for driving while Black.”

Lance Black suit against San Diego police and county Sheriff's Department
Lance Black suit against San Diego police and county Sheriff’s Department (PDF)

The federal suit says Lance Black of Lakeside was stopped over supposedly expired car tags and was arrested around 8 p.m. Nov. 3, 2020 — Election Day — in the 4600 block of El Cajon Boulevard near Hoover High School.

Police Chief David Nisleit, Sheriff Bill Gore and 15 other named defendants “committed acts in furtherance of [a] conspiracy” against Black, the suit says, including assault, battery, false imprisonment, falsifying police reports “and generally behaving like ruthless thugs.”

Black, 55, was booked into San Diego Central Jail on counts of resisting arrest and battery on an officer, but was never charged. He “remained wrongfully deprived of his liberty” until his release 12 hours later — noon Nov. 4, the suit says.

Scott A. McMillan, known for right-wing posts on social media, is representing Black, whom he met in the aftermath of La Mesa rioting in May 2020. McMillan gave Black an award for supporting peaceful protests in the weeks that followed.*

“Black Lives Matter … I’m not into that,” Black said in a phone interview. “I’m into right and wrong. I don’t care about any [social justice] organizations.”

Black, a nonpaid pastor who heads Flowers in the Garden Christian Ministries, says he gave half the salary of his biotech job to “Pastor Sharon at Lemon Grove Community Church.” 

He said he told police during the traffic stop: “I’m Pastor Lance Black. My family helped stop the riot in the city.”

Another time, he said, he met with future La Mesa Police Chief Ray Sweeney and spoke at his swearing in.

(La Mesa officials declined to comment, citing “pending litigation.” Black now runs a T-shirt business called 9th Design and Apparel.)

City, County Want Case Thrown Out

In separate motions filed in late December, the city and county of San Diego asked a downtown judge to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim — mainly not identifying who did what to Black, including seizing his mobile phone and deleting video.

County and city motions to dismiss case
County and city motions to dismiss case (PDF)

“We have an incident report with one name as the arresting officer,” McMillan said via email. “A list of other officers. That’s it. We asked.”

The civil suit, filed Nov. 27, says 25 people “collaborated to concoct a materially false ‘official’ story supporting the interaction with [Black]. … The report was changed several times until the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department accepted the report as sufficiently describing a crime.”

“The allegations in the pleadings (of a bogus report) will be augmented,” McMillan told Times of San Diego. “We anticipate an amendment.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Linda Lopez OK’d a request from both sides to delay filing of briefs, with the last one due March 21.

“The motion to dismiss will then be under submission and the parties will be notified if oral argument is necessary,” Lopez wrote.

The former Lincoln High School student says he was coming home from work at Abzena, a Mira Mesa biotech, looking for a bite to eat, when he noticed a police car stopped for a light two cars ahead of him.

Driving a “top of the line” 2017 Infiniti QX80 Signature Edition SUV bought the previous September via Carmax, Black said he wore a diamond watch, visible on his left arm, when the SDPD cruiser switched lanes.

‘Black Man Driving a Nice Car’

The 38-page lawsuit said a female officer, having pulled up behind Black, accused him of a registration violation. Black, who said valid registration was in the window, asked her and her partner to call a supervisor and that there was no reason for them to stop him other than him being a “Black man driving a nice car.”

Black conceded that he was “cursing mad” at the police, but “there’s no law against having a bad attitude.”

He said he told officers: “You pulled me over because you thought I was ‘Leon the drug dealer.'”

As many as a dozen police vehicles rushed to the scene, he said, and a crowd of maybe seven people gathered across the street, including at least one woman video recording the scene.

The lawsuit says Black was violently and painfully “jerked” out of the car and slammed against the vehicle. Later, “Doe 1 through Doe 15 … in unison violently took [Black] to the ground,” where he was handcuffed too tightly.

“The officer squeezing the cuffs remarked ‘They aren’t supposed to be comfortable,'” says the complaint. Black responded that the cuffs “aren’t supposed to cut off my circulation or cut into skin either.”

San Diego police declined a Times of San Diego request for body-worn camera video, saying it was exempt under public-records law as being “investigatory files.”

At the sheriff-run jail, Black was denied adequate medical care, the suit says.

Black “suffered financial harm by his loss of use of property including his automobile, missing work resulting the false imprisonment, suffering physical trauma, pain and suffering caused by the assault and battery, that was exacerbated by the unreasonably prolonged detention in the police vehicle,” the suit said.

He also suffers recurring shoulder pain, the suit says, as well as “humiliation, stigma, harm to reputation, and severe emotional distress from the above-described abusive conduct.”

Attorney Attended Jan. 6 D.C. Rally

Attorney McMillan — who attended the Jan. 6, 2021, protest rally in Washington where President Trump spoke and takes conservative stances — was a registered Democrat for 16 years until Nov. 20, 2020. He’s now a registered Libertarian.

“I support justice, but I do not support rioting and looting,” McMillan said via email. “I support honest, service-oriented police officers who abide by their oath to the Constitution.”

Black, now listed as No Party Preference, says: “I’m not a Democrat; I’m not a Republican,” he said. “I’m about right and wrong, man.”

Jonathan S. Simon is Lance Robbins professor of criminal justice law at UC Berkeley’s School of Law and Center for the Study of Law & Society.

Asked to comment on the case, Simon called it a bit unusual because the plaintiff was not seriously injured or suing on behalf of a person killed by the police, “which is more common because of the high cost of litigating cases like this and the low odds of winning under prevailing legal standards that favor the police.”

“Regrettably, that means civil lawsuits play little role in seeking justice for the vast majority of people who suffer abuse at the hands of the police which ends without death or serious injury,” he said via email.

“As for the damages, in the hands of skilled counsel, injuries like being thrown to the ground while handcuffed or placed in a jail cell (where people have been known to self harm because of the high level of stress) might be shown to add up — not sure to $10 million.”

Simon isn’t surprised that plaintiffs and lawyers on the political right are getting involved in cases like this.

“The Fourth Amendment right to privacy/dignity is one on which conservatives and liberals often find common ground,” he said.

McMillan says he’s asking $10 million because of “inflation” and “the outrageousness of the circumstances, the number of the defendants, (which) merit such a number.”

Two veteran lawyers with deep experience in suing police reacted to the lawsuit.

“What a plaintiff ‘sues for’ is meaningless,” says San Diego attorney Dan Gilleon, who represented 20 women who sued former sheriff’s Deputy Richard Fischer. “It just gets media attention.”

He said the City of San Diego’s tort claim form asks for a dollar amount even though it’s not required under the state Tort Claims Act.

“You can’t ask for more later, so I guess if you’re gonna state a number, might as well go high so there’s no lid,” Gilleon said.

(Black had filed claims with the city and county on May 2, 2021. The city failed to respond within 45 days, but the county formally denied the claims — leading to the suit.)

Why Suit is in Federal Court

Black himself had no say in the damages figure.

“I didn’t know anything about the amount,” Black said in a nearly 2-hour phone chat. “I had not even been told it’s a $10 million lawsuit or anything.”

McMillan said the suit was filed in federal court instead of state court because “federal judges and their law clerks are more familiar with this body of law.”

Jerry Steering of Orange County, a “police misconduct attorney” with hundreds of cases under his belt over four decades, demurs.

“You don’t get attorney fees in state-law claims,” Steering says. “And most of these cases are fees-driven. If I gotta put $250,000 worth of work on a … little false-arrest case, by the time you’re done with it, I’m not going to do it for 40% of 20 grand.”

He says no lawyer would bring such a case without the prospect of collecting attorney fees if they prevail.

“That’s why Congress did it — to encourage people bringing cases,” the 66-year-old New York City native said in a phone interview.

Gilleon says it’s much easier to gain an officer’s personnel records in federal court, “and my experience is that federal judges are less … tolerant of the shenanigans” by local officials.

In any case, he said, the city almost always removes a case filed in state court to federal court when a lawsuit contains a 42 USC 1983 “deprivation of rights” cause of action.

Gilleon calls this case similar to one in Mission Beach a few years ago in which he settled for $20,000. But Black’s allegations against Sheriff Gore puzzle him.

“The complaint just assumes that somehow some deputies at the jail were coaching the cops on what to say to get the guy booked,” Gilleon said. “In reality, the sheriff always looks at the sufficiency of the probable-cause declarations, and if they’re insufficient, they don’t book the prisoner.”

Steering says the public presumes that if police do something bad to you that “you must have precipitated it or … provoked it, and that’s not necessarily what happens in the real world. It’s not true.” 

He says 95% to 99% of cases of resisting arrest or battery of an officer are unfounded. “And I’ve been doing this 37 … years.” 

Would Steering take Black’s case? 

“If they can prove it with bodycam shots,” he said.

Bystander Video Not Yet Available

Social justice warrior Tasha Williamson, the former San Diego mayoral candidate, says she’s viewed civilian footage of the traffic stop, which Times of San Diego has sought but not yet obtained.

“I was called to the scene by other activists who were with his family members,” she said via email. She says video supports allegation of wrongful use of force, backing data that SDPD officers’ treatment of Blacks and Whites is disproportionate.

“SDPD is more violent with black men and boys and somehow often escalates minor traffic offenses into unnecessary and excessive force,” she said. “This leads me to believe that training is not the problem. … Law enforcement departments need to get rid of officers who would recklessly use force on someone simply because they can get away with it.”

But Williamson is dismayed by Black’s choice of counsel.

“Mr. Black should [not] have an attorney who was present during any portion of the January 6 … rally that turned into a Capitol riot and was organized by Proud Boys, a known white nationalist group also identified as extremist by the federal government,” she said.

“Mr. Black was wronged by SDPD, a law enforcement department that has a well documented history of racial bias incidents. I wish Mr. Black the best in his fight for justice and hope that his case is not dismissed.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said Lance Black was a member of Scott McMillan’s La Mesa Civil Defense group. Black instead walked the streets to meet business owners and police officers and later with June 14 demonstrators.