San Diego police chief, mayor dismissed from Pacific Beach Trump rally lawsuit

On Jan. 9, 2021, San Diego police officers line up on Mission Boulevard, mostly facing anti-Trump demonstrators
On Jan. 9, 2021, San Diego police officers line up on Mission Boulevard, mostly facing anti-Trump demonstrators, with pro-Trump supporters behind them.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Federal judge says individual officers may still be identified and possibly held liable to police bias claims


A federal judge has dismissed the San Diego mayor and police chief from a lawsuit brought by two women who say they were victims of viewpoint discrimination as they countered a pro-Trump rally in Pacific Beach in January, just days after the Capitol siege.

However, U.S. District Judge Michael Anello wrote in his opinion filed Monday that there may still be viable claims against individual officers involved in dispersing and using force against the crowd during the rally, which turned violent.

The Jan. 9 “Patriot March” was organized by supporters of former President Donald Trump, and a crowd of self-described antifa activists and Black Lives Matter supporters staged a counter-demonstration in the same area.

The women, Mandy Lien and Erin Smith, allege that police used aggressive tactics, including wielding batons and launching projectiles, to disband the counterprotesters while showing bias in favor of the mostly White and male pro-Trump crowd. A few Trump supporters had attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol insurrection, and had advertised they’d be rallying in Pacific Beach.

The Union-Tribune reported that both sides skirmished throughout the day, although a declaration of unlawful assembly only applied to the counterprotesters, who police said threw eggs and bottles at a line of officers in riot gear that had formed to separate the two groups.

Lien, of Chula Vista, said she attended the demonstration with other mothers to support Black Lives Matter and decided to leave when the unlawful assembly was declared and “it was apparent the police were only interested in using excessive force against the counter protestors,” according to the lawsuit.

As they were leaving, Smith tripped and fell, and officers in the line began to hit her with baton and yelled at her, according to the complaint. Lien tried to help her friend but was hit by an officer and told to stay back, the suit says.

When Smith got up and the group was exiting, they were struck by police pepperballs from behind, with one leaving a welt on Smith’s arm, the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, the complaint argues that police ignored violence committed by the pro-Trump supporters, who were later allowed by police to march in the area. Lien alleges she was threatened by men who called her obscene slurs as she walked to her car.

In his order, Anello said the women were not able to sufficiently allege a specific policy that Police Chief David Nisleit or Mayor Todd Gloria “directed, approved or ratified” related to the allegations. Nor, the judge ruled, was the lawsuit able to show a longstanding pattern, practice or policy by the city that led to the events at issue — a civil liability known as a Monell claim that is somewhat rare for plaintiffs to win.

However, the judge said it was too premature to dismiss the case as to individual officers who many have been involved in the dispersal efforts, even if their identities weren’t known when the lawsuit was filed.

The women allege the officers violated their constitutional rights guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and equal rights of citizenship.

A deputy city attorney argued in a court filing that the officers should not be held liable because an unlawful assembly had been declared, and the “First Amendment does not prohibit dispersing assemblies that are violent, ‘pose a clear and present danger of imminent violence, or...violat[e] some other law in the process.’”

Anello ruled that the officers’ identities could still be uncovered during the discovery process, and that he would withhold judgment on whether a viable claim exists against those officers.