Journalist Sues City of Fresno for Withholding Public Records About Taser Use that Caused Severe Burns

April 21, 2023


SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Brian Howey, an Oakland-based investigative journalist, has sued the City of Fresno under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for the city’s refusal to release use-of-force records regarding the death of Michael Sanders, who was tased multiple times by Fresno police officers in 2004. The First Amendment Coalition and Tenaya Rodewald and Matthew Halgren of the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton represent Howey.

While researching his story, “After police killings, families are kept in the dark and grilled for information,” published in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 2023, Howey requested the recordings and transcripts of all interviews with Sanders’ family and friends conducted by Fresno police investigators related to the use of force during the incident.

The city refused to provide the records, contending they are not subject to disclosure under the CPRA because there was “no report, investigation, or finding of an incident involving the use of force against a person by a peace officer that resulted in death or great bodily injury,” and because the coroner listed the cause of death for Sanders as cocaine intoxication, not use of force.

With the assistance of FAC Legal Director David Loy, Howey responded noting that the records are still subject to disclosure under the CPRA even if the use of force did not result in death, as long as it caused “great bodily injury.” The city maintains Fresno police did not subject Sanders to use of force resulting in “great bodily injury.”

“Michael Sanders suffered from multiple puncture wounds and burns to his groin from being tased repeatedly by three officers and died shortly thereafter,” said Howey. “For the city of Fresno to assert this is not “great bodily injury” is a grave insult to the public and common sense. What are they hiding, nearly 20 years after Mr. Sanders’ death?”

Passed in 2018, Senate Bill 1421 promotes transparency in law enforcement, noting “[t]he public has a strong, compelling interest in law enforcement transparency because it is essential to having a just and democratic society.” The law specifically calls for the release of records for, among other things, “An incident in which the use of force by a peace officer or custodial officer against a person resulted in death, or in great bodily injury.” (emphasis added).

The First Amendment Coalition has been working closely with journalists and activists for years to use tools such as SB 1421 and other public records laws to advance police transparency and make law enforcement more accountable to the people it serves. “When it passed SB 1421, the California Legislature noted the extraordinary power police have over people’s lives, and the enormous responsibility law enforcement has to exercise that power honestly and faithfully,” said Loy. “The city of Fresno is not exempt from this law, which was designed to lift the cloak of secrecy that historically concealed almost all police records from public disclosure.” 

In a lawsuit filed by Sanders’ widow, Lavette Sanders, a federal court noted that three officers fired their Tasers at Michael Sanders 10 times, five in drive-stun mode to his groin. In drive-stun mode, a Taser’s electrodes are pushed directly against the skin. Used in drive-stun mode, Tasers commonly cause serious burns. Tasers inflict excruciating pain, and the coroner’s report on Michael Sanders’ death showed that he suffered severe burns to his groin and numerous puncture wounds from being tased.

Howey v. City of Fresno was filed in California Superior Court in Fresno County.