Tasha Williamson
Tasha Williamson sued National City and the police officers who dragged her out of council meeting, alleging state and federal civil rights violations. Photo by Chris Stone

Former San Diego mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson suffered injuries to her wrist and rotator cuff when she was dragged out of a National City council meeting in July 2018.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Tasha Williamson case. (PDF)

But after winning a ruling against National City police in San Diego federal court, she lost Monday in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when a three-judge panel ruled police had qualified immunity since they didn’t use excessive force.

“Williamson could have avoided or reduced the pain and injury she alleges she suffered from the officers’ conduct by cooperating with them and leaving the room under her own power,” said the decision by Judge Danielle J. Forrest. “She did not. But her choice does not render the officers’ conduct unreasonable.”

Williamson sued the city and officers under a federal law and California’s Tom Bane Civil Rights Act. She originally asked for damages of at least $500,000.

The social justice activist alleged that Officers Lucky Nguyen and John McGough used excessive force against her in violation of the Fourth Amendment as she and others took part in a die-in to protest the death of a Black man, Earl McNeil, in police custody.

Specifically, she claimed that it was excessive for them to “pull … the full weight of her body by her hyperextended arms.”

The officers asked San Diego federal Judge William Q. Hayes to void the case based on qualified immunity.

The district court denied the officers’ motion, concluding that Williamson “present[ed] a genuine issue of material fact as to the excessive force claim regarding [the officers’] pulling of [Williamson]’s arms and hands such that a reasonable jury could find excessive force in violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983.”

But Forrest and Judges Susan P. Graber and Consuelo M. Callahan reversed Hayes, saying: “Even viewing the evidence in Williamson’s favor, the type and amount of force used by the officers in this case was minimal.”

The ruling added:

The officers did not strike Williamson, throw her to the ground or use any compliance techniques or weapons for the purpose of inflicting pain on her. Rather, they held her by her arms and lifted her so they could pull her out of the meeting room after she went limp and refused to leave on her own or cooperate in being removed.

It is undisputed that Williamson’s crime was minor, that she posed no threat to anyone, and that she was not actively resisting arrest. Nonetheless, the officers argue that they had a legitimate interest in removing and arresting her, particularly where proper warnings were given before they used any physical force.

They also argue that we should consider Williamson’s “relative culpability” in refusing to get up. Williamson counters that the governmental interest was “about as low as it gets,” even considering her relative culpability.

Tasha Williamson first amended lawsuit. (PDF)

The 9th Circuit panel concluded that National City’s interest in forcibly removing Williamson from the council meeting was low, “but it was not nonexistent.”

“Williamson’s nonviolent disruption of the City Council meeting was a minor offense,” the judges said. “And where Williamson’s actions did not pose any physical danger to others, we do not consider her relative culpability…. But even if the city’s interest was low given the lack of exigency posed by threat of harm or other factors, this does not mean that the city was “required to permit the ‘organized lawlessness’ conducted by the protestors.”

They added: “It goes without saying that citizens have a right to express their disagreement and dissatisfaction with government at all levels. But they do not have a right to prevent duly installed government from performing its lawful functions. … To conclude otherwise would undermine the very idea of ordered society. … Officers repeatedly warned the protesters that they had to leave the front of the meeting room or they would be arrested, and they refused to comply.

“Their demonstration disrupted the city council meeting, which was adjourned ‘for order to be restored.’”

National City’s choice was to allow the protesters to remain in the council meeting room until they chose to leave on their own or to forcibly remove them, the judges said in a 16-page ruling.

Williamson,  co-founder of the San Diego Compassion Project, “has not identified any less intrusive means available to the officers for restoring order in the City Council room so that the city’s legitimate business could proceed,” the panel said.

Contacted Monday night by Times of San Diego, Williamson referred questions to her downtown attorney, Douglas S. Gilliland. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.