Lawsuit claims excessive police force
ST. PETERSBURG - Robert Ferreira was sure someone was breaking in his neighbor's house in the early-morning hours of Aug. 22, 2009. He saw a woman he didn't recognize trying to pry open a garage door. So he called 911. Two St. Petersburg police officers, Neil Rambaran and Jonathan VanHouten, checked out the house, at 4042 32nd Ave. N. With guns drawn and flashlights in hand, they found a man and woman inside. Rambaran took the woman to the ground, drove his knee into her back and handcuffed her; VanHouten handcuffed the man. But the man and woman were not burglars. They had recently rented the place. Last week, the couple, Kevin Roenfeldt and Yvonne Walsh, filed a lawsuit against the city of St. Petersburg, claiming the officers used excessive force. Each is seeking more than $15,000 in damages.The St. Petersburg Police Department acknowledges Roenfeldt and Walsh were rightfully in the house. Roenfeldt complained to a sergeant about what happened but did not file an internal affairs complaint, preferring instead to file a lawsuit, according to the police department. The police department's version of what happened after the officers went inside the house differs from what the couple says. According to the police report he filed, Rambaran found a sliding glass door slightly ajar at the home. He also found that some mesh screening had been taken off its tracks and appeared to have been thrown to the side. Because of the way the door looked and recent burglaries in the area, Rambaran concluded there might have been a burglary at the house, according to his report. Rambaran opened the sliding glass door, shouted out that he was a police officer and told whoever was inside to show their hands. He found Walsh in a recliner and told her to show him her hands. But she didn't, the officer reported. The officers told her they were investigating a burglary, and Walsh tried to tell them she and Roenfeldt had just leased the house, she claims in her lawsuit. The officers asked her for proof of residence, such as a copy of the lease, but she told them she didn't have any. Soon after, Rambaran slammed her against the wall and swept her feet out from under her, causing her head to hit the floor, Walsh alleges in her lawsuit. Then he punched her in the back of her head several times, according to the lawsuit. Rambaran documented the take-down in his report and in a so-called response to resistance report, which an officer is required to file when force is used. He said Walsh repeatedly refused to show her hands while sitting in the recliner. "Fearing that Yvonne was concealing a weapon, with my Glock 22 handgun still pointed at her … I took my left hand, placed it on Yvonne's left shoulder and guided her onto the living room in an attempt to stabilize her," Rambaran said in his report. In fact, she didn't have a weapon. But she refused to put her hands behind her back while lying on the floor, Rambaran said in his report. He put his knee into her back, took hold of one of her wrists and handcuffed her. Rambaran's report says nothing about him punching her in the head. When Roenfeldt came out of a bedroom, he showed his hands, as instructed, and was handcuffed. But Roenfeldt claims that, while he was facing the wall, VanHouten shoved a gun into his back, according to the lawsuit. Roenfeldt also claims he told Rambaran to stop hitting his girlfriend, who lost consciousness at one point, according to the lawsuit. VanHouten eventually found a letter corroborating the couple's claims that they were rightfully in the house. Then the officers took the handcuffs off them. At that point, Rambaran asked Walsh whether she was injured or needed medical attention. She answered no to both questions, his police report states. A sergeant informed internal affairs about what happened, but he backed what the two officers did. "Based upon my review of the event, the officers acted properly based upon what they knew at the time they made entry into the home and the reasons for the officers' actions were explained to the tenants/homeowners," the sergeant wrote. "Roenfeldt is claiming unnecessary force was used against his fiancée when officers entered their home. … He and his fiancée were offered to give sworn statements and he advised he would speak to his attorney first." The couple's attorney, Michael Babboni, said the officers' actions were inappropriate. "There was no reason to treat these people as brutally as they did," Babboni said. "It just seems they could have handled the whole thing differently.