A Hanford police report says Michael Valdez was riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the street when officer Larry Leeds attempted to stop him.
What happened next is the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit in which Valdez, 49, and his attorney, Morgan Ricketts, accuse Leeds of using excessive force to arrest Valdez, actions that they say contributed to blinding him in one eye.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno last week, says Leeds used his patrol car to knock Valdez off his bicycle. The officer then punched Valdez several times in the face and torso. After being treated at Adventist Medical Center, Valdez was booked into the Kings County Jail with a medical patch over his right eye.
The lawsuit accuses jail staff of repeatedly denying Valdez’s request for medical help, causing him to be permanently blind in his right eye. It also alleges that the Hanford Police Department and Kings County Jail destroyed evidence.
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Valdez is seeking unspecified damages for violation of his civil rights, destruction of evidence, battery, and denial of medical care.
Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever said Friday: “We, unfortunately, cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Valdez acknowledged he has had run-ins with the police before. Around 2005, he said, he was arrested for fighting with several Hanford police officers and was sentenced to six years in prison. He was paroled in October 2009.
“That why I didn’t resist arrest (on New Year’s Day),” Valdez said, “because I learned my lesson.”
He’s too dangerous to be a police officer.
Hanford resident Michael Valdez
The incident at issue happened around 4:15 p.m. Jan. 1, 2016. The Hanford police report gives Leeds’ version of the incident:
After seeing Valdez ride on the wrong side of the street, Leeds activates his patrol car’s emergency red lights and siren. Because Valdez ignored the patrol car, Leeds pulled in front of Valdez to cut him off. Valdez’s bicycle then hit the patrol car, causing him to fall.
Valdez got up and began to walk away from Leeds. When it appeared Valdez was reaching for something in his waistband, Leeds drew his weapon and ordered Valdez to stop, show his hands and get on the ground.
At one point, Valdez grabbed his crucifix that was attached to a chain around his neck. Leeds believed Valdez was going to use it as a weapon. Valdez said in an interview Friday that if he did grab the crucifix, it was to say a prayer to God to protect him.
A struggled ensued. Leeds grabbed Valdez, punched him in lower torso and face, and then forced him to the ground. Another officer then helped Leeds handcuff Valdez.
Afterwards, police found a pipe used to smoke methamphetamine in Valdez’s jacket. The report says Leeds injured his hand in the struggle and Valdez admitted to smoking methamphetamine recently. (In an interview with The Bee, Valdez said he didn’t smoke the drug that day.)
After his hospital visit, Valdez was booked into jail on charges of felony resisting arrest and drug charges. His criminal trial is pending.
On Friday, Valdez said Leeds’s report is filled with lies, saying he never rode on the wrong side of the road or resisted arrest. He also said Leeds was “lying in wait to get me” and that Leeds never read him his Miranda rights.
In filing the lawsuit, Valdez and Ricketts said they would like another law enforcement agency or the grand jury to investigate the incident. Valdez also wants charges against him dismissed and wants prosecutors to charge Leeds with perjury and assault.
“Leeds went nuts,” Valdez said. “He’s too dangerous to be a police officer.”
The incident happened in Hanford around 4:15 p.m. on New Year’s Day 2016.
Valdez’s lawsuit gives his account:
Valdez and a neighbor were working on a fence at his mother’s home on Malone Street, just south of Hanford High School, when he noticed a patrol car slowly drive by. The patrol car then made a U turn and parked.
After the neighbor went home, Valdez got on his bicycle and decided to visit a relative. He said he rode on the right side of the street, obeying traffic laws, when Leeds started to follow him at a high rate of speed.
Valdez took a shortcut, but once he completed the shortcut, Leeds drove rapidly toward him. Valdez “was forced to quickly dodge Leeds’ car and maneuver his bicycle around it,” the lawsuit says.
“You just tried to run me over,” Valdez yelled at Leeds, according to the lawsuit. Though Leeds ordered Valdez to come to his patrol car, he didn’t because he feared for his safety, the lawsuit says.
Valdez rode his bicycle toward a small store on 10th Avenue where there were customers in the parking lot. Leeds followed him, but “still had not activated his lights and sirens,” the lawsuit says.
Even if Michael Valdez is found guilty, his attorney, Morgan Ricketts, said he has a valid civil rights lawsuit because he “did not resist in a manner” that would justify the force that police used on him.
Leeds then used his patrol car to ram Valdez’s bicycle, knocking him to the ground and causing him to hit his head on the pavement. The impact propelled the bicycle 10 to 15 feet in the air and caused Valdez’s belt to break and his pants to slip downward.
Leeds got out of his patrol car and drew his gun. “Rather than helping (Valdez), he grabbed (Valdez) and pulled him up off the ground,” the lawsuit says.
Valdez said he was so dazed and disoriented, he was unable to walk normally, unable to process what had happened and unable to respond to any commands from Leeds. The lawsuit says Leeds then punched Valdez in the torso, face and head and that Valdez “never resisted Leeds’ punches and never attacked Leeds.”
When Valdez called out for people in the parking lot to take a video, Leeds “seemed to become angry, and loudly ordered the people not to video,” the lawsuit says.
Leeds continued to punched Valdez and finally took him to the ground. Another officer soon arrived and helped handcuffed Valdez.
Hospital staff treated Valdez for head trauma and diagnosed him with “right globe injury with lens dislocation” and recommended that he see an ophthalmologist, the lawsuit says. But in jail, staff ignored his requests. When Valdez complained in court, the county sent an optometrist to see him. As a result of Kings County’s “deliberately indifferent failure to provide adequate medical care to plaintiff, he is now blind in his right eye with no possibility of reversing the vision loss,” the lawsuit says.
The destruction of evidence allegation involves a bag of clothing that Valdez was carrying when he was arrested. After Valdez was booked, jail staff gave the items to the Hanford Police Department, which destroyed the items in June 2016, the lawsuit says.
Valdez, a longtime Hanford resident, said Friday that he was once a roofing contractor making a decent living. “Because I’m blind in one eye, I can’t even hit a nail, which was my bread and butter,” he said.
When he was arrested on New Year’s Day 2016, he had a misdemeanor warrant for his arrest for drunken driving. After spending nearly a year in jail, he said, he resolved the drunken driving case by pleading guilty and was able to post bail in December.
Michael Valdez has had run-ins with the police before. Around 2005, he was arrested for fighting with several Hanford police officers and was sentenced to six years in prison.
His lawsuit also mentions a 2015 incident in which Leeds went to Valdez’s home, looking for someone. Ricketts said Leeds entered the home “unannounced and without legal cause.” Valdez asked Leeds what he was doing in his home and asked him to leave, but Leeds refused to leave, telling Valdez that he was on a police call, looking for someone, the lawsuit says.
The incident turned tense when Leeds asked Valdez to show proof that he could be in the home. The situation was defused when another officer arrived and instructed Leeds to leave, the lawsuit says.
Valdez said Leeds was out to get him on New Year’s Day. “I remember seeing the patrol car down the street, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” he said. “If I was, I could have just gone into my home and shut the door.”
But on that day, his shower wasn’t working, so he decided to ride his bicycle to his aunt’s house to take a shower.
Ricketts said Valdez is entitled to bring a claim of excessive force because Leeds used his patrol car to strike Valdez while he was riding his bicycle and then punched him repeatedly for a minor bicycle infraction. Valdez did not resist arrest, she said, and the arrest itself was unlawful, “giving him the legal right to resist with reasonable force.”
And even if he is found guilty, Ricketts said, Valdez has a valid civil rights lawsuit because he “did not resist in a manner” that would justify the force that Leeds used on him.