February 23, 2021
(LOS ANGELES) — When activist and veteran Christina Astorga attended the Sept. 8 “Justice for Dijon Kizzee” protest, she did not anticipate getting shot at with rubber bullets and being handcuffed and arrested — or having her phone taken from her.
On Oct. 26 Astorga sued Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), and Sheriff Alex Villanueva for injunctive relief, deprivation of property, and unreasonable seizures under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Astorga is the founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Wall of Vets, a veteran support group that engages in “peaceful protests and people who are legally exercising their Constitutional & Civil rights,” according to their Facebook page.
According to the suit, Astorga attended the protest “to support holding accountable those responsible for the death of Dijon Kizzee.” Kizzee was killed Aug. 31 by Los Angeles deputies who shot him after he was stopped for riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the street.
Astorga’s complaint says that without warning, deputies started shooting what appeared to be rubber pellets and pepper balls into the crowd near the intersection of Imperial Highway and Normandie Avenue, pushing the protesters north of Normandie. Astorga and a group of protesters turned onto 110th Street and fled to a nearby apartment for protection.
As she entered the apartment complex, Astorga asserted in her complaint, projectiles hit her left arm and buttocks. She says she was not committing any crime, did not pose a threat or harm to anyone, and was not forewarned prior to being hit.
Astorga started livestreaming. “Don’t hurt us,” she pleaded to an approaching female deputy who then took Astorga’s smartphone and pushed her against a wall. A male deputy handcuffed Astorga. According to the complaint, “Plaintiff [Astorga] asked that they not bend her arm upwards because of a pre-existing injury, also telling the deputies she was a veteran. The male deputy said Plaintiff wasn’t a veteran and added, sarcastically mocking Plaintiff, that ‘[She] like[s] to be arrested and like[s] to be handcuffed.'”
The deputies arrested Astorga and seized her backpack and mobile phone, according to the suit. When she was released later in the middle of the night, her backpack was returned minus a pair of military-grade night goggles and the phone she uses to record and live stream protests for the Wall of Vets social media platforms.
In the complaint Astorga alleges that the LASD, who had her phone in possession last, later accessed the Wall of Vets Instagram page and changed the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to #bluelivesmatter. A tweet from the Wall of Vets Twitter account on Sept. 10 said, “PLEASE DO NOT FOLLOW OR ENGAGE WITH WALL OF VETS LA ON INSTAGRAM! @LASDHQ has hijacked my cell phone.” The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Astorga was told by a deputy that her phone would not be returned until after her Jan. 6, 2021 court date. Her arrest charge of “failure to disperse,” however, is unlikely to be filed–L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey made a public statement in June that her office would not be filing charges against protesters for curfew violation or failure to disperse.
“It seems like the Sheriff’s department, instead of following the rules and doing legitimate police work, has decided to instead enact a campaign of violence and petty retribution against protesters by not returning their personal property,” said Colleen Flynn, one of the Astorga’s attorneys.
The attorneys on the plaintiffs’ legal team “do a lot of work challenging police misconduct in the courts and on behalf of protesters,” Flynn told The Click. “We represent protesters in criminal cases, and then we represent them in civil cases when their rights are violated.”
The complaint was amended Oct. 29 to include additional plaintiffs Kiyoko Dodson, Ryan Michael Dodson, and Hugo Padilla who also had their phones or personal property taken; the attorneys will be filing a motion for a class certification.
One of the intended outcomes of the suit for which plaintiffs are seeking class action status is the return of the protesters’ cell phones to their rightful owners, which Flynn estimates to be around 50-60 individuals. Everybody knows how important people’s cell phones are to them,” Flynn said.
“We keep our whole lives on our phones, some of our most intimate communications on our phones, our banking information, our private photos, our private thoughts. And so to have those pieces of property seized by the police and not returned is really upsetting. It’s a chilling of people’s first amendment rights to go out and protest, seek redress of grievances, and engage in collective speech and action.”
Sheriff of Los Angeles County Alex Villanueva has been criticized for resisting the implementation of reforms and not holding his deputies accountable. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has taken steps to remove Villanueva, in a county that has not fired a sheriff in almost 100 years. Amber Logan, attorney for the defendants County of Los Angeles and Villanueva, did not respond to requests for comments.
“The problem is that it goes all the way to the top,” said Flynn. “[Villanueva] is leading a department that knows that it can engage in lawlessness and violence against community members and against protestors. The Sheriff’s department is engaging in petty retaliation against people who are criticizing them for their killing of mostly black and Brown young men.”
On January 22, California Attorney General Xavier Bacerra announced the launch of a civil rights probe, prompted by cases like Astorga’s, investigating the recent actions of the LASD and Alex Villanueva. “There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Becerra told L.A. Times’ Alene Tchekmedyian. “We are undertaking this investigation to determine if LASD has violated the law or the rights of the people of Los Angeles County.”