Sheriff's office, Kern County face legal claim for in-custody death

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Attorneys have filed a civil rights claim on behalf of the family of a man who died in Kern County Sheriff's Office custody last month.

The claim on behalf of David Silva's family is against the sheriff's office, the county of Kern and the California Highway Patrol.

Silva was involved in a confrontation with deputies May 7 near Kern Medical Center. The coroner's office has said Silva died accidentally due to hypertensive heart disease.

Raw witness video of the arrest {>}{>}

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said last month that Silva was struck with batons during his arrest, but all baton strikes were executed within department policy. The baton strikes avoided the head and neck, the sheriff said.

Friday, attorney David Cohn, who is representing the Silva family, said the goal of their legal action is to change the behavior of the sheriff's department.

"If we can change, if we can cause, if this is a catalyst for change within that department, then we've done our job and the family will feel like David didn't die in vain," Cohn said. "And that's really our goal in this case."

The confrontation included seven deputies, two CHP officers and a sheriff's K-9.

Watch raw witness video of the Silva arrest below, or find out more about the witnesses to the Silva arrest {>}{>}

"The change we're seeking is the elimination of these officers essentially striking first, and asking questions later," Cohn said.

The attorney said his experts have a lot of questions about what happened. Cohn said they've asked for the incident reports from both the sheriff's department and CHP but have been denied. They'll have to get the materials through filing a lawsuit.

Cohn said the firm's experts have been able to "enhance" some of the video that's available of the incident, and it shows more. But, it still doesn't show exactly how Silva was restrained during the confrontation. He has serious questions about that.

"The autopsy report doesn't even address the issue of David being hog-tied." Cohn said. "It doesn't address the issue of David being in a specific position, which, again, would have a significant bearing on his ability to breathe."

Eyewitness News asked the sheriff's department about their policy and use of the hog-tie restraint. The policy provided calls the use of a soft restraint to secure a person's ankles a "hobble."

"In those cases where the use of handcuffs alone is not adequate to control the person or prevent him or her from injuring himself/herself or others, officers are permitted to use the hobble," the policy states.

It says only officers trained in its use are authorized to carry and use the department-approved hobble. The policy says if a hobble is used to restrain someone in a prone position, that person should be rolled over to their side as soon as possible "so breathing is unimpaired."

And one directive in the policy states, "Officers should never bind any person's hobble to the handcuffs except in the gravest of circumstances where less intrusive means of restraints are ineffective and the officer has reason to believe the lesser restraints will unnecessarily jeopardize the safety of the officer/s and/or person being restrained, and/or the public."

Cohn said his investigation has not revealed if the hobble used on Silva's ankles was connected to his handcuffs.

The attorney's claim levels charges that Kern County was negligent in hiring, training and supervision of the officers involved. It names the county, the sheriff's department and the seven individual officers.

The second government claim is against the state of California and the CHP but states they do not have the names of the two CHP officers involved in the incident.

Cohn said he has also asked for the video and audio from the dash cam from the CHP patrol car that responded.

The attorney also wants the tissue slides from the autopsy. Cohn said they'll have a lot of questions when they get to interview all the deputies, the CHP officers, the coroner and pathologist. He also plans to question Sheriff Youngblood.

The sheriff also asked the FBI to do an independent investigation of the incident. Earlier this week, an FBI spokeswoman would only confirm to Eyewitness News that an investigation is underway, and, "It will take quite some time."

Chris Silva told Eyewitness News he looks forward to the results from the FBI probe. He wants an independent and thorough review of his brother's death.

"We're looking for the truth about what happened to David and justice," Chris Silva said. "And, when are the people involved going to be held accountable."

David Silva's mother, Merrie Silva, said she's very thankful for the witnesses and the community, "and everyone who got involved in this."

On Friday, the sheriff's department declined any comment, referring calls to county counsel. Chief Deputy Counsel Mark Nations told Eyewitness News the legal action was "not unexpected," adding his office will review the claim when they get it, and address it accordingly.

Cohn believes the incident has put the spotlight on officer response.

"Why is that person dead?" he asked. "Are the methods that were used by the Kern County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol acceptable in our community."

The civil rights claim is the first step in the process of filing a lawsuit. The government agencies have 45 days to respond. If they reject the claims, then the family attorneys will file a lawsuit in federal court.