A flower vendor has filed a lawsuit against the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that she was unlawfully arrested as she sold leis at a high school graduation.
Joaquina Valencia’s attorneys said sheriff’s deputies targeted the woman because of her race and used excessive force when they arrested her. The lawsuit — which names two deputies, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Riverside County — alleges that Valencia posed no threat and was unarmed before deputies forced her to the ground.
“You wouldn’t expect police officers to abuse you,” said attorney Ralph Rios in a news conference. “You don’t expect police officers to ask you whether you're a U.S. citizen or whether you have papers with you.”
Video footage of the incident showed Valencia pushing a deputy away, flowers in hand. The deputy then shoved her to the ground, held her by the hair and twisted her arm to handcuff her while using his body weight to restrain her, the video shows.
Deputies struggled to move the leis out of the way when they tried to handcuff Valencia.
The Sheriff’s Department said it would not comment on the lawsuit, but released a statement from 2017, when the incident took place. In that statement, the department defended the deputies’ actions and said the video circulating on social media did not give context to what really happened.
As the deputies were patrolling the area during Perris High School’s graduation ceremony, they warned and cited about 15 people for vending without a permit, the Sheriff’s Department said.
The plaintiff — who at the time was identified as Juanita Mendez-Medrano — was the last vendor to be approached. Mendez-Medrano was one of the several fake names she gave to the deputies before the booking process revealed her true name, authorities said.
According to the department, Valencia refused to cooperate and pushed a deputy away when he attempted to arrest her on an obstruction of justice charge.
“When Ms. Mendez-Medrano resisted our officer’s efforts to gain her cooperation, a very brief physical struggle ensued before she was taken into custody,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the video did not capture the other vendors cooperating with the citation process, nor did it capture our officer’s repeated efforts to convince Ms. Mendez-Medrano to do the same. As with most police events, the short, publicly produced video does not have the full context or content of the incident seen on the video.”