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He didn’t stop for officers and got beat down, lawsuit says. But was the public at risk?


Scared of law enforcement, Richard Bernier III decided to drive toward his Fresno home on a dark November night, instead of stopping for officers pursuing him.

Once he got near his home, he got out of car and jogged toward it. But before he could make it to the front door, a patrol car drove onto a lawn and ran over his left leg, breaking his foot, according to Bernier’s civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

Writhe in pain, Bernier was unable to stand up, but law enforcement officers still handcuffed his hands behind his back. Then, while sprawled on the ground, the lawsuit says, the officers “took out their batons and began to beat him on his head, face and body.”

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Fresno attorney Kevin G. Little this week sued the Sheriff’s Office and California Highway Patrol on behalf of Bernier, accusing them of excessive force, battery and negligence.

A warrant for Bernier’s arrest, however, says he put the public at risk by speeding during the police pursuit, running red lights and stop signs before striking a mail box and fleeing.

Little also has sued on behalf of Bernier’s wife, Nadezhda Ustinenkov.Little contends the incident has harmed his clients’ marriage, impacted their children, and turned Ustinenkov into Bernier’s caretaker.

More importantly, Little says in the lawsuit Bernier was notified in early December the Fresno County District Office would not charge him. But once Little sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office in late December, asking the agency to preserve the evidence, prosecutors later “reconsidered” their decision and filed charges against Bernier, the lawsuit says.

The incident happened during the early hours of Nov. 8, 2017, in a neighborhood near Marks and Barstow in northwest Fresno.

CHP spokesman Axel Reyes said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti referred questions to County Counsel.

Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright said he also could not comment on Bernier’s complaint because of pending litigation and Bernier’s pending criminal case.

But in general, the District Attorney’s Office files charges based on evidence and circumstances from a complete investigation, he said. “We do not make filing decisions on an individual based upon that individual’s claim of police misconduct,” Wright said.

The warrant for Bernier’s arrest tells a different story from what’s alleged in the lawsuit.

Sheriff detective Sergio Garcia’s affidavit in support of the warrant does not mention law enforcement beating Bernier or breaking his foot.

Instead the affidavit says Bernier tried to climb a fence, but two sheriff’s deputies grabbed him before he could escape. The two deputies “used force, after verbal commands failed, in order to eventually place Richard into custody,” the affidavit says.

Bernier admitted he was drunk, the affidavit says, and was eventually charged with felony evading police and misdemeanor charges of hit and run, drunken driving and resisting arrest.

Little and Bernier’s lawsuit claims once Bernier’s foot was broken, he begged officers to simply arrest him. Instead, they beat him with batons and their fists, and kicked him until he lost consciousness, causing Bernier to suffer severe head trauma and a broken orbital bone that later required surgery and a titanium plate.

Bernier was taken to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, where he was handcuffed to a bed. Bernier contends law enforcement interfered with him receiving proper medical care so they could rush him to jail.

While at the hospital and in jail, the lawsuit says, officers mocked him, saying things like “that is what happens when you don’t listen to us.” One officer also told Bernier he was lucky that a police dog was not at traffic stop.

Several hours after his arrest, Bernier posted bail and was released from jail. He then returned to CRMC to get treatment for his injuries, and remained in the hospital for several days.

Court records say a criminal complaint was filed Jan. 8, charging Bernier with one felony and four misdemeanors. Nine months after charges were filed, Bernier’s arraignment remains pending.

In his affidavit, detective Garcia doesn’t say what injuries Bernier suffered after the traffic stop. But his affidavit says Bernier told officers he was sorry.

Nine months after the incident, Little said Bernier’s injuries have not fully healed and he lives in pain. Bernier also has frequent headaches and “is simply not the same mentally or neurologically,” Little said, noting that his client has severe memory and concentration issues.

“Bernier also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is plagued with intrusive thoughts and nightmares about the abuse he suffered, as well as the currently pending retaliatory prosecution,” the lawsuit says.

Pablo Lopez: (559) 441-6434, @beecourts.
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