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Criminal Justice

Couple Sues San Antonio Police And The City Over 'Excessive Force,' Arrest in 2019 Altercation

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Ryan Loyd | Texas Public Radio
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A San Antonio couple is suing the San Antonio Police Department and the city in federal court over a 2019 arrest. The pair say they were wrongfully arrested after being assaulted by a police officer.

The married couple own Garden Bistro Bar on North Blanco Street. The suit stems from an argument between the officer and the owners over a party at their restaurant after it was closed.

The lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday alleges that officer Joe Castaneda used excessive force when he wrongfully arrested Ninfa Ruiz and Rodrigo Jardon Ayala on Oct. 3, 2019. The two were charged with a felony for assaulting the officer. The case was dismissed in April of this year.

The lawsuit says Castaneda showed up at 2:40 a.m. when the business was closed but the owners and some friends were still there celebrating Jardon Ayala’s birthday with cupcakes.

Castaneda is seen on video from that night telling other officers he saw people on the bar patio drinking alcohol. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission bars licensees from serving or letting people consume alcohol on site after 2 a.m.

The officer instructed them to stop drinking and disperse, according to a police report.

An argument ensued over TABC code, with multiple people arguing with the officer that they weren’t drinking and could continue their celebration, without violating TABC code.

The lawsuit says only a few people were present, while media reports based on police incident reports at the time said it was around 50 people. Police cam footage shows less than 20 people were left when the officer was walking through.

Castaneda jumped the patio wall and began telling people to go home, while searching for the person he had been arguing with.

“Defendant Castaneda began confronting the people inside asking aggressively ‘where’s that guy that was talking shit? He leave already?’” said court documents.

Videos show Castaneda walking through the bar telling people to leave.

“Defendant Castaneda then began yelling at the individuals in the establishment to ‘GET EM OUT!’ and ‘LET’S GO!’ He continued to instruct people that they must leave.”

The lawsuit paints a very different picture than the one in police reports. And much of the discrepancies occur — according to Susan Hutchison, the couples lawyer — after Castaneda’s body camera goes black.

Bodycam footage provided by the lawyer shows him pushing a woman believed to be Ruiz from a hallway into a larger room when the recording stops.

The lawsuit said Castaneda turned off his body camera. In his report, Castaneda said he looked down and saw it wasn’t functioning and attempted to turn it back on.

Security camera footage of the moment is unclear, but onlookers can be seen becoming upset by what they are witnessing and many can be seen recording the incident with their cell phones.

Castaneda told officers who arrived that when he was trying to cuff Ruiz, she “stomp” kicked his ribs.

"By me grabbing (Ruiz's) foot after the kick, she lost her balance fell to the floor of business..." wrote Castaneda in his police report.

The lawsuit said Ruiz was sitting on a barstool when the officer pulled Ruiz off it by the leg and threw her to the ground.

“You can see him grab her foot and throw her like a sack of potatoes,” Hutchison said.

Security cam footage doesn’t capture the entire scene, but does show Ruiz’ leg in Castaneda’s hands and then him throwing her to the floor. It does not appear from the footage that any kick occurred.

Court documents said this cracked her jaw, broke her hand and caused severe pain in her abdomen while she was recovering from a C-section. Castandeda then put his knee in her back and put all his weight onto her.

The couple’s lawyers said Jardon Ayala — knowing his wife still had stitches from a C-section— quickly tried to intervene, pleading with the officer to get off Ruiz, and instead arrest him.

When the officer didn't, video showed that within a few seconds, the scene escalated further with Jardon Ayala tackling Castaneda to the floor.

According to the lawsuit, Castaneda then began choking Jardon Ayala — who believed he would die.

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Garden Bistro Bar Security Camera screenshot
Officer Castaneda on on top of Jardon Ayala

Video shows the two wrestling with Castaneda on top of a supine Jardon Ayala, a forearm across the bar owner’s throat. After a couple seconds Jardon Ayala’s hands can be seen raised in submission. The lawsuit said he was not resisting at this point, but that the choking continued.

Video shows Castaneda relents when other officers arrive.

The entire scene from when Castaneda throws Ruiz to the floor to when other SAPD officers arrive is less than two minutes.

Police reports by neither Castaneda nor an officer that appeared at this point reference the choking. They describe both bar owners as smelling of alcohol.

The two bar owners were arrested for assaulting a police officer.

When the charges were dismissed in April, the law allowed the couple could to sue for wrongful arrest, which they now are doing.

The lawsuit seeks to connect the excessive force allegations with nearly 20 other lawsuits against SAPD officers over the past dozen or so years.

In court documents it briefly describes each one, including a 2012 encounter that accused Castaneda of “violently” throwing a man’s head against a motel wall for not providing identification.

It argues the pattern shows the police department and the city have failed to train officers. It says the authorities are “deliberately indifferent” to the lack of training.

“This is sincerely about making sure police departments train their officers appropriately,” said Hutchison. The training is often skewed to officer safety rather than what is appropriate to the situation in serving the community, she continued.

The lawsuit seeks damages but does not list a dollar figure.

Hutchison said the city had failed to provide adequate oversight of the police force for years, pointing to its many lawsuits. The city has not responded in court filings yet.

A city spokesperson said it doesn’t comment on open litigation.

San Antonio Police did not respond to questions about the suit by the time of publication.

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