Teen’s final driving lesson turns into law-enforcement nightmare

Dominic Elliott, in sling, stands with uncle Kaine Garcia, left, and grandfather, Abel Garcia, right, and cousin Isiah Garcia.
Dominic Elliott, in sling, stands with uncle Kaine Garcia, left, and grandfather, Abel Garcia, right, and cousin Isiah Garcia. Special to The Bee

Dominic Elliott, an A-student with baseball dreams at Fresno High, was eager to get his driver’s license when he slipped behind the wheel of a Drive America training car for his final session and drove off with his instructor.

But as he made a U-turn on Blackstone Avenue in April 2016, Fresno County sheriff’s Deputy Andres Solis pulled them over and, with his gun drawn, ordered Elliott and his instructor out of the car with their hands up, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court. The lawsuit says Solis roughed up Elliott, handcuffed him and seriously damaged his right arm, an injury the family says has kept him from the sport he loves.

Elliott and his parents want the Sheriff’s Office to pay him unspecified damages for excessive force, assault and battery, false arrest, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They also have sued Drive America for negligence and emotional distress for allegedly putting their son in danger by having a faulty license plate on the driver’s training car, which caused law enforcement to believe it was stolen, the lawsuit says.

“They really hurt this kid,” said Fresno attorney Mark Coleman, who represents the Elliotts and filed the lawsuit on their behalf. “He might end up with permanent damage to his arm.”

The deputies cooked their own goose.

Patrick McCombs, owner of Drive America in Fresno

Sheriff Margaret Mims said Friday she could not comment due to pending litigation. Mims also could not say whether Solis or any deputy was disciplined because personnel matters are confidential. But the sheriff said Solis remains a deputy.

The car Elliott was driving was a white Ford Focus that had the number 5 on it, but not a Drive America label or any mention of student driver, Coleman said.

Patrick McComb, who has owned Drive America in Fresno for nearly 30 years, said Friday that sheriff’s deputies overreacted because they knew it was a driver’s training car. He also said the car Elliott was driving that night was legally registered, insured, had a valid license plate, and was annually inspected by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I would never put any of my students in danger,” said McComb. “I feel terrible about what happened to Elliott because deputies really manhandled him something horrible.”

According to McComb, up to six deputies drew their guns and forced Elliott and his instructor, Robert Ross, to the ground, even after Ross repeatedly told them that Elliott was a student driver. “It’s a mess,” said McComb, a former deputy who said he once worked with Mims. “The deputies cooked their own goose.”

The lawsuit gives Elliott’s account of the incident:

On April 21, 2016, Elliott, then 16, was driving north on Blackstone Avenue when he spotted a sheriff’s patrol car following him around 8:40 p.m. The instructor told him not to worry and to get in the left lane to make a U-turn at Bullard Avenue.

As Elliott waited for the light, Solis pulled up behind. When the light turned green, Elliott began making his U-turn. That’s when Solis activated the patrol car’s emergency lights to make a traffic stop.

After Elliott pulled over, Solis and other deputies drew their guns, even though Ross repeatedly told them that he was an instructor who was teaching his student how to drive.

Solis and the other deputies “disregarded and ignored the repeated pleas of the driving instructor,” the lawsuit says. The deputies ordered Elliott out of the car and arrested him without probable cause, the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, Solis grabbed Elliott’s right arm and handcuffed him in such a way that it caused severe injuries to the upper right extremity. After he was handcuffed, Elliott was put in the back of a patrol car.

But once deputies looked at Elliott’s identification and learned he was a minor, he was allowed to go home, Coleman said.

“It was a traumatic experience,” the lawyer said. “He was crying from the pain and being scared to death.”

Based on the information and evidence obtained during the investigation, some allegations have been sustained and others unfounded.

Sheriff’s letter to Sophia Elliott

Elliott, now 17, was never given a citation or charged with a crime, Coleman said.

Medical records, Coleman said, reveal Elliott suffered nerve damage called complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic progressive disease characterized by severe pain, swelling and changes in skin color. “His arm was swollen for months,” Coleman said. “His fingers turned blue and he continues to have sharp pain in his arm and shoulder.”

dominic elliott 2
Dominic Elliott’s right hand was wrapped after sheriff’s deputies pulled him over and handcuffed him while he was a student driver in Drive America’s training car in April 2016. Special to The Bee

Elliott’s parents, Sophia and Shane Elliott, made a citizen’s complaint, but said sheriff’s officials never told them whether Solis or the other deputies were punished.

Sophia Elliott said that when they filed their complaint, she was interviewed by sheriff’s investigators. “I felt like I was being interrogated, like they were trying to blame me,” she said.

In a letter, dated April 6 this year, sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Lolkus told the the family: “Based on the information and evidence obtained during the investigation, some allegations have been sustained and others unfounded.”

After the incident, Sophia Elliott said her son cried for six months and has had trouble sleeping because of the pain. During those months, Dominic Elliott had a fear of getting into a car, his mother said. And when he did, he slumped down and hid, she said.

“He was afraid that police might do it to him again,” she said.

He fears police might do it to him again.

Dominic’s mother, Sophia Elliott

She said her son is enrolled in Fresno High’s International Baccalaureate program, an academically challenging program. He is right-handed so the injury has made it difficult for him to write and do his homework. “But he still getting A’s,” she said.

Fresno High School student Dominic Elliott. Special to The Bee

Dominic Elliott also played second base his freshman year at Fresno High, but had to quit when a wild pitch broke his kneecap, Sophia Elliott said. Her son was looking forward to playing baseball for Fresno High during his sophomore and junior years, but the incident with the deputies ruined his right arm, she said.

“He hopes to play his senior year,” Sophia Elliott said.

Doctors have given her son options to deal with the pain, including using medical marijuana and addictive pain medication, but he said no. Sophia Elliott said one doctor suggested putting him in a coma for five days in order to reprogram his brain to ignore the pain. She said no.

Elliott has agreed to get an injection of pain medicine in his neck. An injection in October appeared to work, his mother said. “He’s making progress every day,” she said. Elliott will receive another injection in his neck this month, Sophia Elliott said.

When Elliott was pulled over, it was on the last day of driver’s training, his mother said. After the incident, Drive America gave him a certificate of completion. But his injured arm and fear of police hindered him from taking his driving test for nearly a year, his mother said.

In March this year, Dominic Elliott finally got his license.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts