Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Files: A Body Slam, a Broken Back, and a $950,000 Payday
This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.
By Tyler Hayden of The Independent
(In June, following the death of George Floyd and amid renewed scrutiny over how and when law enforcement officers use physical force against civilians, the Independent filed a California Public Records Act request with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office for information on serious use-of-force incidents dating back to 2010. This is the latest in a series of reports on those incidents. Read the other entries here.)
It was just after 2 a.m. on June 1, 2018, when Deputy Anthony Muneton, a first-year rookie with the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, witnessed Chandler French, a 28-year-old former restaurant manager who’d fallen on hard times and bad habits, driving erratically on Highway 101 near Summerland. French had just finished a late-night bite at Jack in the Box and was headed back to the Carpinteria Motel 6, where he was living. He was high on methamphetamine.
As Muneton followed, French jerked onto the southbound off-ramp toward Lookout Park. Muneton turned on his lights and siren, but French didn’t stop. A short but wild pursuit ensued, with French barreling through Summerland’s surface streets, launching his Toyota Tacoma off intersection speed dips before finally losing control and crashing in front of The Nugget restaurant on Lillie Avenue. The entire incident was captured by Muneton’s dash-cam.
French spills out of the driver’s seat and staggers a few feet toward the building as Muneton exits his cruiser, draws his gun, and orders French to the ground. Even as French drops to the dirt and remains there, Muneton repeats his orders: “Get on the ground! Get on the ground, now!” The adrenaline in his voice is palpable.
French then tries standing but can’t straighten his upper body. He appears injured. Muneton later said he thought French had a broken leg. French falls to his hands and knees and half-crawls, half-drags himself up The Nugget’s wheelchair ramp. Muneton shouts at him to “Stop running!” Muneton has time to check the truck for other occupants before advancing on French and shoving him onto his stomach. A struggle begins, most of which is blocked from view by a railing. “Stop resisting!” Muneton continually yells, his voice rising. Muneton then punches him repeatedly in the head. “Let me go,” French pleads as he tries squirming away.
Muneton then grabs French in a chokehold, lifts him up, and slams him to the ground in a reverse hip throw. The scuffle stops immediately. “I’m done. Please, I won’t move,” French says. “That hurts so bad. I think my back is broken.” Another deputy arrives at the scene. French lies to him that a person named “Billy” had been driving his truck.
French had in fact sustained a broken back. He was transported by ambulance to Cottage Hospital and underwent surgery but suffered permanent debilitating effects. A doctor later said in a sworn statement that while French likely fractured his back by violently striking the speed dips and crashing, Muneton’s body slam almost certainly exacerbated the injury. French sued Muneton and the Sheriff’s Office for excessive force, demanding $120,000 to cover his medical expenses and unspecified damages for his past and future pain and suffering.
The department wanted to fight the case, taking it all the way to trial if necessary. They argued Muneton followed policy and did what he needed to do in a chaotic and dangerous situation. But this March, just as the COVID pandemic was putting the community on lockdown, the County Counsel’s Office offered French $950,000 to quietly go away. He took it. It was the most recent, among more than $8 million, in civil lawsuit settlements against the Sheriff’s Office in the last decade.
The decision, approved in a split vote by the Board of Supervisors, understandably rankled and confused department brass. Why did the county roll over, they wondered? What were the attorneys afraid of?
Why would the County Counsel be willing to pay so much to a suspect who has a long history of drug abuse, was kicked out of the Marines for drug use, has a record of minor criminal offenses, and was dangerously high on meth at the time of his arrest?
Statements by Undersheriff Sol Linver, the Number Two man in the Sheriff’s Office, may explain why Santa Barbara’s government leaders wished to avoid the potential embarrassment of a public trial and the possibility of an even bigger payout.
According to a 354-page transcript, the deposition of the undersheriff begins cordially enough, with Linver quipping to attorneys that he couldn’t know exactly what was going through the young deputy’s head that night. Linver doesn’t read minds, he says. “My wife does, but I don’t.”
Over the next 10 hours of questioning under oath, however, the congenial atmosphere of the law office devolves into a tense exchange between Linver and French’s attorney, Brad Gage. By the end, Linver — a respected 35-year veteran of the department who’d personally cleared Muneton of wrongdoing during an internal review — seemed to cast doubt on the lawfulness of Muneton’s actions and the ability of his agency to honestly investigate its own.
Linver admits that Muneton may have been able to use less forceful means to subdue an already hobbled French, including pepper spray or a Taser. Linver can’t make clear why Muneton didn’t, or why he didn’t wait the few seconds it took backup to arrive to put French into handcuffs more easily. Linver also has difficulty explaining why Muneton, who Gage suggests was adrenalized and angered by French’s attempts to flee, ordered French to get on the ground when he was already on the ground or why he told French to stop running when he wasn’t running.
Gage also takes issue with Muneton’s repeated admonitions to French to stop resisting, as even Muneton admitted in his incident report that French was never aggressively combative. Linver says French’s attempts to stand or crawl away could be considered resisting. Gage asks if the reverse hip throw is an approved method of takedown. Linver says he’s not familiar enough with the department’s training standards to know.
Gage zeros in on what he calls the “code of silence” that exists among some law enforcement agencies to shield officers accused of misconduct. Linver denies its practice in the Sheriff’s Office. Gage then asks Linver if he has ever lied or withheld information in his career. “I probably did tell some white lies,” Linver admits. “I might have done that to protect someone, yes.” Gage suggests to Linver that, during his internal review of the case, he shielded Muneton from discipline by whitewashing the description of the deputy’s actions and his potential violations of protocol, accusations Linver continually denies.
Gage gets Linver to acknowledge Sheriff’s officials are trained to sometimes lie in the course of their duties to achieve a desired outcome. Deputies may tell a barricaded suspect they will release a K-9 if they don’t surrender when there’s no dog present, Linver explains, or detectives may be less than truthful to suspects to elicit a confession. But Linver strongly denies that Muneton lied to French in their confrontation.
In the case’s final settlement agreement, the county and the Sheriff’s Office admitted no wrongdoing. “The civil litigation related to this case is now resolved,” Sheriff Bill Brown wrote in a letter to the Independent, “and there was no finding by a judge or jury that French’s injuries were caused by Deputy Muneton’s use of force. The County’s position is that the pursuit-related striking of speed dips at high speed and the vehicle accident caused French’s injuries.”
Though the Sheriff’s Office remains convinced that Muneton behaved properly, the Board of Supervisors also reasoned that the deputy’s use of force would not be as easily accepted by a jury. What exactly was it about the case that spooked supervisors? It’s an answer we’ll never know since the matter ended in a closed board meeting, out of view and out of court.