Marissa Santa Cruz was celebrating her 22nd birthday with her boyfriend Paea I’suva Tukuafu when the party abruptly ended.
San Jose police arrived in response to a noise complaint in the couple’s hotel room at the Holiday Inn at 1350 North First Street. After sponge rounds and batons flew, the couple is now walking away with a $400,000 settlement from the city.
Santa Cruz and Tukuafu declined to comment, opting to defer to their attorney, Robert Powell.
“People are going to come at maybe me or them for settling for $400,000, but all I can tell you is those people are not in my client’s shoes, and they do not—and obviously could not—understand the toll of all of this on their emotional health,” Powell told San José Spotlight. “It has been very, very hard on Marissa, who comes from a law enforcement family. And for her to have to sit in public and let them grill her mercilessly about her past was just too daunting and not a therapist-recommended way to go.”
The incident, which occurred in 2019, was settled earlier this month. The couple claims they suffer from “anxiety, fear, sleep disturbance and fear and resentment of law enforcement from the incident.” The couple’s lawsuit sought damages from the city for what they claimed was a violation of their constitutional rights based on excessive use of force.
A spokesperson with the San Jose Police Department declined to comment.
According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Santa Cruz and Tukuafu, officers responding to a noise complaint at their hotel room struck them with batons, sponge rounds and Tasers “multiple times.” Tukuafu was stunned seven times and Santa Cruz was struck in the legs with batons.
Both the couple and the city acknowledge that the hotel accused the couple of playing music too loudly in their room. But when two officers arrived at the hotel room, they said the music was “not too loud.”
From there, Santa Cruz’s and the city’s stories diverge.
Use of force
The city claims the two repeatedly defied both hotel staff and police.
“The officers spent at least half an hour trying to get the guests to respect the hotel staff concerns about noise and to leave the premises as requested by the hotel,” according to a city memo. “The use of force occurred after the plaintiffs repeatedly delayed complying with the officers’ direction to leave the hotel.”
A sworn statement by one of the officers involved, Sgt. Michael Pina, said the Tasers were meant to be a warning.
“I wanted to let him know we were serious, but I did not expect any officer to Tase him at that time,” Pina said. “Each officer is trained that he or she cannot shoot his or her Taser unless there is active resistance. At most, I expected an officer to display his Taser.”
The couple claimed they turned down the music immediately after hotel staff asked them to do so—approximately 30 minutes before officers arrived.
Santa Cruz and Tukuafu concluded their only way out of the situation was to pack their bags and leave. That’s when the couple claims officers entered their room without their consent and insisted on keeping the door open.
The situation deteriorated rapidly after the couple failed the officers’ “attitude test.” They began asking Tukuafu questions, and he stopped packing to answer them.
“How do you expect me to pack, if you’re over here talking to me, so why don’t you shut the f— up?” Tukufau told the officers.
That’s when the plaintiffs said an officer prompted one of his colleagues to “tase him.”
Where the fault lies
After enduring being hit with batons and stun guns, Santa Cruz and Tukuafu were transported to a hospital and spent a night in jail before they were released. No criminal charges were filed. Both suffered bruises and discoloration to their skin.
An audit of the city’s police force found that a quarter of sworn San Jose police officers received at least one complaint in 2020. Residents filed more allegations of misconduct in 2020 than in any of the past four years, and many occurred during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in May and June last year. Twenty-three percent of the complaints contained allegations about use of force.
“George Floyd protests aside, there are so many instances of San Jose police officers just brutalizing people in circumstances that just don’t need to end that way,” Powell said. “I don’t know where the fault lies, how much of it can be spread to the entity versus the individuals. But it’s a pretty bad culture in my opinion.”