A Santa Clara man and his family are suing the city of Palo Alto after he was arrested for a crime they claim he did not commit, according to a complaint filed this week in federal court.
The case, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, alleges that the Palo Alto Police Department violated the civil rights of 63-year-old Mahmoud Elsayed, under the Constitution's Fourth and 14th amendments, when officers entered his home and arrested him on March 2, 2016.
The lawsuit claims that Elsayed -- who is Middle Eastern by birth and a naturalized American citizen with no criminal record -- became a target because of his ethnicity and Muslim faith. The police only a cursory investigation of the most likely persons to have committed the alleged crime, the suit states. The city was also negligent for not adequately training its officers against violating constitutional rights or committing breaches that amounted to a deliberate indifference to the person's rights.
The lawsuit asks for no less than $30 million for damages, plus attorney's costs and fees, for Elsayed, his wife, Nanette Dumas, and their disabled adult daughter. The suit names Palo Alto police Detective David McAlee, the city of Palo Alto and as-yet-unnamed defendants.
Elsayed's brush with Palo Alto law enforcement began in January 2016 after he was named by a maintenance man as a person who smashed a floodlight at a condominium complex. The condominiums are located behind a townhouse the Elsayeds own.
The couple had lived in the townhouse in the 4100 block of El Camino Real for 11 years but then leased it to a man starting on April 1, 2015, for one year, according to 2016 claim they filed against the city.
On Jan. 9, 2016, a man entered the condominium complex backyard at about 9 p.m. in the 400 block of West Charleston Road and allegedly smashed a floodlight affixed to the wall that had been blinking on and off. A resident at the complex who witnessed the vandalism notified the property owners that she saw a man in the backyard striking the light with a tennis racket. She believed the man was the neighbor who lived in the townhouse, according to the Elsayeds' claim.
Footage from an outside security camera at the condominiums showed the incident, but the image was blurry, according to the claim. A second camera inside the building supposedly clearly showed a man inside the building, who the maintenance man named as "Mahmoud Elsayed." The blurry video was given to the Palo Alto police, but the video from inside the building clearly showing the person purported to be Elsayed was never provided to police and was said to be inadvertently erased, the claim noted.
Elsayed alleges he never met the condominium maintenance man and did not know how he came to know Elsayed's name. The maintenance man claimed he was "crystal clear" that the images from the indoor camera were of Elsayed, whom he had seen "numerous times" during the past two years from the backyard of the condominium complex and had spoken to once or twice.
But Palo Alto police did not thoroughly investigate the tenant who was living in the townhouse, nor whether any other person might have been at the home when the incident occurred, according to the claim.
Unknown to the Elsayeds at the time, the tenant had been subletting the townhouse through Airbnb, which violated his lease agreement. On Jan. 27, 2016, when Detective McAlee went to the townhouse in search of Elsayed, he was met by persons who said they were Airbnb guests. Although McAlee attempted that day to reach the tenant through the cellphone number provided by the Airbnb guests, he could not reach him. When he finally reached the tenant at the end of February, the tenant denied he had broken the light, according to the claim.
But meanwhile, McAlee had reached Elsayed after sending the Santa Clara police to his home. Elsayed called the detective and repeatedly told McAlee they had not been living at the townhouse for nearly a year and had a tenant living there. They explained they had not had any direct contact with the tenant, leaving all communications to the property manager, Midtown Realty. Elsayed's attorney also explained to McAlee that the townhouse had a tenant and that it had been sublet through Airbnb without the Elsayeds' knowledge.
Elsayed also had no reason to drive to the townhouse from his Santa Clara home at 9 p.m. when the incident occurred, according to the claim. The couple is certain they were at home when the incident occurred, they told police. McAlee at the time would not discuss why Elsayed was being scrutinized, and the couple only learned later about the broken light after receiving a demand letter for payment from the condominium owner.
Elsayed alleges that the police showed bias by treating him and the tenant unequally during the investigation.
Elsayed also does not match the description the female witness gave to police of a Caucasian man of medium build and in his 40s. The maintenance man said the person in the video was balding, in his 50s, wearing glasses, about 5 feet and 9 inches to 5 feet and 11 inches tall and weighing about 220 pounds.
Elsayed is 63, 5 feet and 8 inches tall, weighs about 225 pounds and has a mustache. The tenant is Caucasian, 61 years old, 5 feet and 7 inches tall and weighs about 200 pounds.
On March 2, 2016, McAlee and another officer arrested Elsayed at his Santa Clara home for felony vandalism, handcuffing him in front of his home and neighbors. The Elsayed's disabled daughter became hysterical and could not stop screaming, according to the claim. Elsayed later passed a lie detector test, which he took on the advice of his attorney.
His lawyer submitted the lie-detector results to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and explained that Elsayed had been arrested and charged in error. The district attorney's office had the case dismissed during Elsayed's April 2016 arraignment, and the court granted Elsayed's attorney's request to seal and destroy his arrest and court records. The court entered a written order to that effect on April 20, 2016.
But Elsayed and his family say they are still experiencing trauma. He has frequent nightmares involving his arrest and imprisonment and he is often depressed. The family fears and distrusts the police and no longer feels secure in their home, according to the claim. Their disabled daughter was particularly affected by the arrest, and the family feels anxiety every time there is a knock at the door, they said. The Elsayeds say their neighbors now look away from them and no longer wave when they come and go from their home, according to the claim.
Palo Alto police spokesman Zach Perron referred a request for comment to the City Attorney's office. Molly Stump, city attorney, could not immediately be reached.