A Black woman who was punched in the face by a sheriff’s deputy last year while holding her baby in her arms filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, accusing Los Angeles County of failing to train or discipline the deputies who she says used excessive force and wrongfully arrested her last year after a traffic stop.
Lawyers representing Yeayo Russell said the young mother was breastfeeding her baby in the moments before Palmdale deputies pulled over the car she was in and arrested her, tugging on her baby’s leg before taking the child and throwing Russell in jail.
“This case is about more than just punches,” said Jamon Hicks, one of the attorneys handling the case. “It is about the way the deputies treated this mother.”
Following the traffic stop that ended in punches, Russell was booked for felony child endangerment and allegedly forced to throw out her breast milk before spending four days behind bars, where Hicks said she had “no idea where her child was or if it was okay.”
The lawsuit, which does not put a dollar figure on the damages requested, says the arresting deputies violated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure during the arrest.
The county and the Sheriff’s Department did not immediately comment on the litigation. Sheriff Robert Luna called the incident “completely unacceptable” earlier this month when he released body-worn camera footage and held a news conference to announce his decision to relieve the deputy of duty.
Days after footage of the violent arrest went viral, The Times obtained an internal county email showing that the FBI is investigating and has visited Sheriff’s Department headquarters to take documents related to the probe.
In recent weeks, the department has also faced criticism for two other violent arrests caught on camera. One, involving a woman thrown to the ground by a deputy in Lancaster, is also under FBI investigation. The other, involving a transgender man who was beaten during a traffic stop, has generated calls for further scrutiny even though the department already cleared the deputy involved.
This week’s lawsuit stems from a traffic stop in July 2022, when Palmdale deputies spotted a vehicle driving at night without the headlights on. When they pulled over the driver, the deputies allegedly noticed the smell of alcohol coming from inside and spotted four women, three of whom were holding babies in their arms instead of using car seats.
The deputies arrested the female passengers on suspicion of felony child endangerment. They arrested the male driver on suspicion of felony child endangerment, driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license.
But in the course of those arrests, deputies used force on two of the women — including Russell.
Weeks after sheriff’s deputies were filmed assaulting a woman in front of a Lancaster WinCo, the Sheriff’s Department released footage of a deputy in Palmdale punching a woman carrying her baby after a traffic stop.
The bulk of the eight-minute video released by the Sheriff’s Department shows a tense exchange between several deputies and a woman clutching her baby. Repeatedly, the deputies asked the woman to give up the child so they could arrest her.
“Forcefully taking your child from you is not what’s best,” one deputy said
“Taking my child from me is not what’s best,” the woman responded.
After several minutes of back-and-forth, the deputies pried the woman’s hands apart and took the child from her arms.
Then, deputies announced they planned to arrest Russell, too.
“Y’all gonna have to shoot me dead to take my baby from my arms,” she said, before a struggle ensued.
While at least two deputies held her by the wrists and arms, video shows a third threw two punches at her head as she clung to her baby with one arm.
The chaotic video footage does not provide a clear perspective, but, according to the lawsuit, at one point Russell’s baby was left hanging upside down as another deputy pulled on the child’s leg.
“My baby’s leg, my baby’s leg,” Russell shouted, fearing that the deputies would break her child’s bones.
Eventually, the deputies took the child, arrested Russell, then allegedly forced her to throw out some of her breast milk. Prosecutors ultimately decided not to charge her with a felony, but her lawyers said she is still “very, very scared” and “very, very stressed.” During a press conference Tuesday to announce the filing of the lawsuit, Russell turned away and appeared to tear up her as lawyers replayed footage of the arrest.
Her child, who is now a year old, is also a plaintiff in the case because of the force deputies used when tugging on the baby’s leg.
Russell’s attorneys said there could be more lawsuits ahead, including some that might target the individual deputies involved. This week’s filing didn’t name any of them, but an attorney representing the deputy who punched Russell previously told The Times his client had acted out of concern for the the child’s safety. The deputy was cleared of wrongdoing during several levels of internal review before Luna learned of the case this month and intervened.
“We are heartened because Sheriff Luna brought the horrific aspects of this case to the public’s knowledge,” said Carl Douglas, another attorney handling Russell’s case. “We will hope to rid the Sheriff’s Department of this warrior mentality that could allow officers to violate the rights of a young woman protecting her child and go silent for an entire year.”
To Hicks, the case also highlights ongoing problems in the Antelope Valley, where he said “the county has had a practice and custom of using excessive force” against residents and “specifically, using excessive force against Black women.”
In 2013, a federal investigation found a pattern of unreasonable force, intimidation, and unlawful stops and searches of Black and Latino residents in Lancaster. Two years later, the Sheriff’s Department agreed to implement sweeping measures to improve policing there, but as of 2021 monitors said that progress had been slow.
Then in 2021, a 16-year-old Black student at Lancaster High School sued the department and her school district, alleging she was slammed to the ground by a deputy at school after refusing to give him her phone. The department has also faced allegations of citing and arresting Black and Latino high school students in Lancaster and Palmdale at a disproportionate rate.
“I don’t think there’s any question there’s a problem between Los Angeles County and Antelope Valley residents,” Hicks said, adding that the fact it took a year for the video to come out “shows the mentality of the county sheriffs in that area.”