San Diego

County Settles Case Alleging Excessive Force by Deputy

The alleged victim's attorney said his client would be in jail if he didn't record the incident on his cell phone

Attorneys for a man who filed a civil rights lawsuit against a former San Diego County Sheriff's Department detective and the county of San Diego said that the legal action has been settled.

The alleged victim, Robert Branch, told NBC 7 Investigates he believes the incident happened in large part because he is a young black male.

Branch’s lawyer agreed, and said the $137,000 settlement and a jury’s previous finding that Branch was not guilty of assaulting the plainclothes deputy would probably not have happened if Branch had not recorded the incident on his cell phone.

“They tried to put him in prison [even] with the video evidence,” said Branch’s attorney, Dante Pride. “So clearly, if there was no video evidence, that's exactly where he would have ended up.”

Pride said black men are too often wrongly accused of failing to comply with law enforcement orders or assaulting an officer. Pride said “too many” black males take plea bargains and grudgingly accept misdemeanor convictions to avoid a felony conviction because they justifiably fear they can’t get a fair trial.

“Mr. Branch could have done that, but he didn’t.” Pride said. “We need more people like him.”

The incident in question happened in May 2015. Branch and SDSO detective Paul Ward were both driving west on Interstate 8 near El Cajon. Branch reportedly sped by Ward’s unmarked car in the fast lane, at one point driving onto the left-hand shoulder of the freeway.

Branch said he later pulled off the freeway at College Avenue to check his car, and Ward followed him. The encounter quickly escalated, and Branch’s cell phone video shows Ward putting Branch in a choke hold.

At one point, Branch threatened to spray Ward with pepper spray.

Prosecutors later filed felony and misdemeanor charges – including resisting an officer -- against Branch, who said he believed that Ward was off-duty at the time, and had exceeded his authority. At trial, the prosecutor said Ward was on-duty, as a plainclothes detective, driving an unmarked car.

The jury found Branch not guilty of all the charges. After the trial, Branch and his attorney continued their pursuit of a federal civil rights lawsuit they had filed earlier against Ward, the sheriff’s department, and the county.

That court action alleged excessive force, battery by peace officer, and other violations.

Court documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates confirm that lawsuit was settled August 27.

Branch’s attorney said the country will pay Branch $137,000 in return for dismissal of the case. There is no indication in court documents that Ward or any of the defendants admitted any wrongdoing.

Ward resigned from the department after the May 2015 incident, and Branch’s attorney said Ward was not disciplined as a result of the incident.

"That cop was allowed to retire,” said attorney Dante Pride. “No disciplinary action against him. He just went about his merry way."

Branch also doubts that much, if anything, will change in how local law enforcement interacts with young black males like himself, despite the video evidence and the cost to taxpayers for the lawsuit settlement.

“A lot needs fixing,” Branch said. (But) I don’t think it’s going to be fixed.”

The sheriff’s department confirmed that Ward has retired, but provided no other comment or information for this story. Ward could not be found for comment, and the county counsel’s office did not respond to requests for information or confirmation of the settlement amount.

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