Sonoma County has reached a tentative settlement with the family of David Allen Ward, the Bloomfield man who died after a sheriff’s deputy used a now-banned neck hold on him in a violent struggle during a 2019 traffic stop.
The tentative agreement, affirmed in documents filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland on March 10, is set to end a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Ward’s family against the county, the Sheriff’s Office and Charles Blount, the former deputy who wrapped his arm around Ward’s neck in a carotid hold Nov. 27, 2019 while attempting to take him into custody. He died on the ground outside his car minutes later.
Terms of the settlement, including a monetary figure, were not available Friday, but several sources indicated that the payout would represent a new high mark for civil rights cases filed against the Sheriff’s Office. The current $3 million record came in the 2018 deal that ended the suit filed by the family of Andy Lopez, a Santa Rosa teen who was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy in 2013.
Ward’s half-sister, Catherine Aguilera, said the deal was welcomed, even as she noted that separate criminal proceedings against Blount are just getting underway. Aguilera declined to comment on the settlement terms, as did Izaak Schwaiger, the Sebastopol attorney representing Ward’s family.
“We’re glad to have this piece, this civil lawsuit come to a closure,” Aguilera said. “But in our hearts the whole thing is about the sheriff (Deputy) Charlie Blount.”
County officials also declined to comment on the terms of the deal. Supervisor David Rabbitt said the board was aware of the pending settlement and had given direction to staff to finalize the agreement.
“We were all appalled by what happened. It’s certainly tragic,” Rabbitt said. “The sheriff took immediate action against the deputy involved, which was very telling.”
Blount, 61, was charged last November with felony involuntary manslaughter and assault in his role as a peace officer for his involvement in Ward’s death. That criminal case is in the pretrial phase, Harry Stern, Blount’s criminal defense attorney, said Friday.
After multiple attempts to reach the Sheriff Office for comment, a department spokesman responded Friday evening and directed all inquiries to the County Counsel’s Office.
Sheriff Mark Essick, who was represented in the civil lawsuit by the county’s attorneys, moved to fire Blount in December 2019. Blount, a 19-year veteran of the department, retired before that action could play out.
Ward died after sheriff’s deputies and Sebastopol police attempted to remove him from his car following a vehicle chase. Officers have said they do not know why Ward refused to pull over.
Authorities initiated the pursuit because they recognized the car Ward was driving had been reported stolen. After the physical altercation they learned Ward was the registered owner of the car.
Ward had remained in the driver’s seat as officers shouted at him to exit, body-camera footage of the arrest showed. Blount was then shown reaching inside the driver’s side window, where in an attempt to subdue Ward, according to the Sheriff’s Office, he repeatedly bashed the man’s head into the door frame and then put him in a carotid hold.
After deputies removed Ward from the car, he fell unconscious while in handcuffs and died.
Ward’s family described him as being in poor health at the time of his death. He nearly died 20 years before when he was hit by a drunken driver. He had also developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart condition, which required that he use an oxygen tank. He sometimes relied on a wheelchair to get around, his family said.
Karlene Navarro, director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, faulted Blount for failing to de-escalate the situation despite being trained to do so.
Sheriff Essick singled out Blount’s conduct during the car stop, calling it “extremely troubling.”
“Please know that this one person does not reflect the culture of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and does not represent the hard working men and women who work here,” he said in a video his department released in late 2019 showing bodycam footage from the incident, in which Essick announced that he intended to fire Blount.
Essick later joined other law enforcement chiefs in California when he forbid deputies from using the carotid hold. Essick took that step after Gov. Gavin Newsom directed the state’s police training program to stop instructing officers on how to use the restraint and urged law enforcement agencies to prohibit officers from using the restraint technique.