A Northern California family has filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department, alleging that officers gave a vacationing doctor a concussion, held his 10-month-old baby “hostage,” and cuffed and arrested his wife for taking a sip of coconut water.
These are only a handful of the allegations detailed in the lawsuit filed in the US District Court of Northern California in March by emergency room physician Sam Martisius and his partner, Kirstin Johnson, who are the parents of five children, ranging in age from 10-months to nine years. The suit stems from a disputed confrontation that took place in Dolores Park in January 2019.
“It’s a case of the nanny state run amok,” said Ben Rosenfeld, a civil rights attorney representing the family, adding that “the police overreacted” and caused the incident to spiral out of control.
City Attorney’s office, which represents the police department, disagrees.
“This lawsuit is without merit,” said John Coté, a City Attorney spokesman. “The officers in this case responded reasonably to multiple civilian complaints regarding Ms. Johnson and Mr. Martisius’s neglect of their young children while intoxicated.”
According to the complaint, the family drove its van down to San Francisco from their Mendocino County farm on Jan. 31, 2019. They had a dog named Gandhi with them and were hoping to find a new home for it. Once in San Francisco, the family went ice skating, did some shopping, and ended up at Dolores Park in the late afternoon.
Martisius brought his 10-month-old son with him to the Dolores Park basketball courts to find a pickup game. With his son courtside, he shot hoops until it got dark. In the meantime, Johnson and her kids tried to find a home for Gandhi the dog.
At around 9 p.m. Officer Kierstie Barr and Lieutenant Marina Chacon arrived on the scene following reports that the couple was intoxicated, according to the lawsuit.
The officers approached Johnson and asked her if she had been drinking. She had had a drink earlier in the day, but was not intoxicated, the lawsuit says. The officers also asked where her partner was.
Officer Barr then ran toward the basketball courts, and soon officers Hava Carter-Ribako, Samson Hung, and Flint Paul joined her. They summoned Martisius — but as he went to pick up his baby, Officer Paul allegedly “charged” Martisius, “shoved him from behind,” and knocked him down, so his head hit the pavement, giving him a concussion. Martisius never resisted the officers, verbally or physically, the lawsuit says.
Officer McCarter-Ribako then took the 10-month-old baby, and walked him to the group of officers. “Alarmed both by her husband’s arrest, and the fact that a strange police officer had her baby, Johnson pleaded with the police to give her the baby, and to let her nurse him,” the lawsuit says.
Instead, the officer “paraded” the baby around, showing him to other officers. “Not only did the other officers fail to intervene to curtail and rectify this outrageous abuse,” the lawsuit says, “they joined in it by positioning themselves to wall Johnson off from being able to see” her baby. The officers used the baby as a “hostage to pressure her to respond.”
After Johnson walked to her car for coconut water, officers allegedly swarmed her, removing a child from a carrier on her back and arresting her. Like her husband, Johnson did not resist physically or verbally, the lawsuit says.
The couple was humiliated and the children were frightened, the lawsuit says.
A police report written by Officer Barr, however, tells a dramatically different story.
Firstly, she and other police responded to reports that a man “was holding an infant and being belligerent and yelling at other pedestrians,” intoxicated. Barr reported that she and other officers contacted Johnson, and her breath smelled of alcohol, and that the van had several empty alcohol containers strewn inside.
Secondly, when officers took custody of the 10-month-old, Martisius became “combative” and officers needed to restrain him. Barr wrote that Martisius told officers he was not injured. Barr also said they found alcohol on his person, and said his breath smelled of alcohol and Martisius slurred his speech. Furthermore, Barr said Johnson was being uncooperative.
“Based on Johnson’s and Samuel Martisius’ statements, Johnson’s and Samuel Martisius’ actions, witness statements, and my observations,” Barr wrote in her report, “I believe Johnson and Samuel Martisius were under the influence of alcohol. I believe that Johnson and Samuel Martisius were unable to care for themselves and their children due to their level of intoxication.”
The couple was eventually booked on five felony counts of willful child endangerment, resisting arrest, and public intoxication.
All of those charges, however, were never pursued by the District Attorney. “At the time of the incident, the police department presented the case to DA, but the DA’s office did not charge the case and has not charged the case since,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the DA’s office.
Rosenfeld said he has requested officer body-camera footage of the incident, but he is still waiting for it. “If they’re so sure of the righteousness of their behavior,” he said, “give us the video.”
Coté, the City Attorney spokesman, said that Rosenfeld has not requested the body-camera footage through the litigation process. The office will “produce relevant records, including body-worn camera footage” once discovery begins, he said.
Moreover, the police did not conduct a field sobriety test, so there is scant evidence that the parents were intoxicated, other than the officers’ accounts, Rosenfeld said.
“They had plenty of time to conduct an actual breathalyzer,” he said.
And indeed, the police report mentions no tests.
The lawsuit further alleges that, after the couple’s arrest, officers “carjacked” the van by driving it to Mission Station with the children inside. The children and their parents remained separated at Mission Station until a social worker picked up the children in the middle of the night. Martisius and Johnson were transported to San Francisco County Jail.
Gandhi the dog was taken by Animal Care and Control. The agency has not yet returned our call and his fate is not known.
All the while, Martisius was allegedly deprived of medical attention for his head injury, the lawsuit alleges.
Once the couple was released on a $40,000 bond the next morning, they found out that their children were being transported to Child Protective Services in Mendocino, the lawsuit says. The couple made their way back up north and were able to reunite with their children. During an inspection at the family’s home a week later, social workers found nothing amiss — they found “a loving and mutually supportive family,” the lawsuit says.
What was supposed to be “fun and relaxing day,” the lawsuit says, turned into a nightmare.
And now Johnson and Martisius are suing the SFPD and the city for unlawful arrest; false arrest and imprisonment; intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress; violations of California civil rights; interference with retaliation against the free exercise of expression; unlawful and unreasonable search and seizure; “trespass to chattels” (unlawfully taking their van); and negligence.
The couple is asking for a raft of damages — including monetary damages exceeding $25,000.
The couple’s lawsuit points out the “cruel irony” of the incident: In attempting to protect the children, the officers involved in the incident “in fact traumatized the children.”