A seven-year legal battle that began with a parking lot fender-bender ended last month when plaintiff Halema Buzayan dropped her civil rights lawsuit against the city of Davis and its Police Department.
Much of the case had been whittled away through dismissals on pleadings and summary-judgment motions by the time U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England Jr. signed a June 11 stipulation between Buzayan and the city and several police officers — the only remaining defendants — calling for the case to be dismissed and for each side to bear their own attorney’s fees and costs.
What was left had been set for trial in January 2014.
“I think what they did was smart,” said John Whitesides, the attorney representing the city in the lawsuit. “Their best-case scenario was that some part of what was left of the case would survive to trial, but they knew it would be very limited, if any.”
The Buzayans’ lawyer, G. Whitney Leigh, could not be reached for comment.
But in a statement to The Sacramento Bee this week, Leigh said the family has been focusing its efforts on humanitarian work in Libya, and that the lawsuit had become “a real distraction.”
Halema Buzayan was 16 years old when Davis police Officer Pheng Ly arrested her on the night of June 13, 2005, on suspicion of causing minor damage to another vehicle in the parking lot of the Safeway store on Cowell Boulevard, then leaving the scene, the week before.
Her family contended that the teenager was not at the wheel of the family’s Toyota Highlander when the alleged collision occurred, and that the damage to the two vehicles was such that the Highlander could not have caused it.
Still, the family reached a financial settlement with the driver of the other car, which then-Yolo Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner noted as the basis for his dismissal of misdemeanor hit-and-run charges against Buzayan in April 2006.
By then, the case had generated significant controversy in the Davis community as the Police Department was accused of targeting Halema Buzayan and her family because of their race and Muslim religion.
The Buzayans filed their civil lawsuit later that year, naming among the defendants the city of Davis and Davis Police Department, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office and The Davis Enterprise.
England released The Enterprise from the lawsuit in June 2007, saying its coverage of the high-profile story — including the online posting of police audiotapes recorded during the Buzayan investigation — were protected by California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute. The judge also ordered the Buzayans to cover the more than $21,000 in legal fees the newspaper had incurred.
A subsequent ruling by England in February of this year cleared the District Attorney’s Office, former District Attorney David Henderson and prosecutor Pattie Fong, releasing them from any liability for providing audiotapes to The Enterprise.
The dismissal of defamation allegations against the Police Department and D.A.’s Office resulted in another payout of about $7,200 in attorney’s fees to Whitesides. The city had made several offers to settle the civil suit over the years, but “none of those involved the payment of any money to the Buzayans,” nor any admission of wrongdoing, Whitesides said.
Still, the controversy generated by the case resulted in several reforms for the Davis community, including the creation of a Police Advisory Committee to review completed police complaint investigations; a Citizens Advisory Board as a sounding board for the police; and an ombudsman position to observe and comment on Police Department operations.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene