Man sues SFPD after being tossed from theater

February 26, 2011 10:26:00 AM PST
A San Francisco man who went to the movies and found himself in a faceoff with cops is telling his story. He claims in a lawsuit that police used excessive force when they threw him out of a theater and there was nothing he could do to stop them.

The story raises a lot of questions about how far the police can go and who gets targeted and why. In this case, a man who had committed no crime ended up suffering a major injury at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department. The city and officers deny the allegations.

When Timothy Hoyt and a friend decided to take in a matinee of Sherlock Holmes, they did not know the drama that would unfold would be their own. Hoyt says no sooner had they settled in to watch the action that he was beckoned from the aisle.

"It's the security guy with his flashlight and he's fingering over, come here," Hoyt said.

Hoyt was escorted out of the theater and into the lobby, and that is where the story really starts.

"And I said, 'What's the problem?' and he says, 'Well, we have a complaint that you've been drinking alcohol and you're drunk,' and I said, 'Well no problem, I haven't drank in 30 years," Hoyt said.

Hoyt went back to his seat. Ten minutes later, there was another flashlight. This time it was two police officers. Again, Hoyt was walked to the lobby.

"I said, 'Can we discuss this? This is a big misunderstanding that's just kind of snowballed out of control here; there's no alcohol on my breath,' I said, 'I'm willing to take a breathalyzer,'" Hoyt said.

Hoyt wanted to go back to his seat, but with no warning, Officer Hank Lum quickly moved in and put Hoyt in a restraining hold with his arm behind his back.

"He grabbed my arm and he bent it up from behind me and locked in on it and he went straight up with it and when it hit right at my ear, my arm, I heard the bones just go snap," Hoyt said.

As Hoyt struggled against the pressure, he realized there were more cops.

"There's, you know, six officers there now standing there watching this transpire and not a one of them stepped out stepped up and said, 'Hey, maybe you're a little excessive, back off a little,'" Hoyt said.

Dan Noyes: "And you weren't charged with anything?"
Hoyt: "I wasn't charged; they just automatically come in and took it to the word that we were being, that I was drunk and evidently being belligerent or something and it was like, 'case solved, get out.'"

Hoyt says Lum pushed him through the door and out of the theatre.

Court records show the theatre manager that day backs up Hoyt's story. In a deposition, the manager says he did not smell alcohol on Hoyt, Hoyt was not slurring his speech and "was walking fine" and that when Hoyt took a step to go back into the theatre officers "pulled him down instantly" and "held his arm to keep him down."

Through the San Francisco Police Department press office, Lum refused to comment. But the I-Team obtained portions of his video deposition from Hoyt's lawyer. In it, Lum admits he did not see or smell any alcohol on Hoyt, but he told Hoyt mall security wants him to leave the theatre.

"He immediately spun like 'who,' like he was going to go confront the security guards and he was really in a aggressive way so I took hold of his arm and walked him out," Lum said.

Lum says it only took him seven seconds to restrain Hoyt and get him out of the theatre. Hoyt says in that seven seconds he ended up with a badly broken arm. Major surgery and a painful brace followed.

The I-Team tracked down Lum's boss, interim San Francisco Police Chief Jeff Godown at a police commission hearing.

"I have no information on the case; if I get a chance to get the information and review the information I'll be more than willing to talk to you," Godown said.

When the I-Team followed up with his press office, they refused to give any information, saying they will not comment on pending litigation.

Hoyt says he does not understand why he was singled out.

"That's the story of my life; I don't know why it is, but people stereotype me as a bad guy or something all the time," he said.

That is what Hoyt's lawyer Michael Bracamontes says happened this time, and why he is suing the SFPD.

"It goes back to, you can't judge a book by its cover," Bracamontes said. "And Tim's right, you look at him, you see the beard, you see the teeth, you see the tattoos on his arm and it's easy to make an assumption on who he is and what kind of life he's lead and the police have to treat everybody the same way."

Jakada Imani is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He says, unfortunately Hoyt's story does not surprise him.

"That he was just roughed up in this way and then just shoved along is just unacceptable and I think it has to be taken very seriously, this may be a part of a larger pattern or practice of use of excessive force," Imani said.

Hoyt says his arm is still numb and he will most likely never be able to fully straighten it again. The injury also complicated his treatment for other long term illnesses he has been battling, including cancer. But his spirit is up and he says he is taking his fight against the San Francisco Police Department all the way.

"Everybody covers it up until finally someone sticks their foot in there and says, 'Hey, this isn't right,' and this is what I'm trying to do now, this isn't right," Hoyt said.

Since the I-Team started investigating this case, the police have shut down any communication; they refuse to reveal the names of the other officers on the scene or even confirm whether Lum is still on duty. They say that would be an invasion of his privacy. The I-Team will follow the outcome of Hoyt's case.

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