California Sikh man sues sheriff’s office for delaying investigation into racist threats

'No one deserves to feel threatened in their own community, and law enforcement — both police and prosecutors — simply must do better,' said Amrith Kaur Aakre, the Sikh Coalition's legal director.

A woman uses chalk to write

(RNS) — Rouble Paul Claire, a first-generation Sikh American, is suing Sutter County in the Sacramento metro area, claiming that authorities have failed to properly investigate and prosecute threats of racial slurs and violence he experienced a year ago.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Eastern District Court of California, claims the Sutter County Sheriff’s Office violated his civil rights when it failed to adequately investigate his case, “based upon Mr. Claire’s race, ethnicity, and/or status as a hate crime victim.”

It centers on two incidents last May in which Claire, 66, was accosted by a woman in his neighborhood while at a local grocery store. The woman, Claire alleges in the suit, called him a “f*****g Hindu” and threatened to “ram” him with her car before she backed up and sped toward him in a parking lot. She took a sudden turn, slammed her brakes, and parked behind Claire’s car. Claire ran back to the store and, with the help of an employee, called 911 for assistance. 

The assailant, Claire said in the suit, accused him of running over her dog. Claire said he did no such thing.

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Later that day, a woman allegedly connected to the assailant wrote the word “Sand N****r” in chalk on the sidewalk outside his house and in his driveway, according to the lawsuit. She also called him the “N” word. Claire again called 911.

About a half hour later, a deputy arrived at Claire’s home and “appeared disinterested and did not take any notes.” Another deputy who responded to the chalking incident poured water over the “N” word before leaving the house and before having “preserved or documented these racial epithets,” according to the lawsuit. Both deputies apparently met with the assailant, according to the lawsuit.

Claire believes there was enough evidence of a hate crime after the deputies spoke with him and the assailant and after seeing the chalking in front of his home. But, he said in the lawsuit, the sheriff’s office “failed to further investigate or report the incidents.”

“For months after immediately reporting these hateful acts, I sat in silence waiting for action that never came. I did not want to have to take legal action against anyone, but I believe that this failure of justice is unacceptable: No one in our community should have to face this kind of hate and bigotry,” Claire said in a statement.

Chuck Smith, a spokesperson for the county, said he could not comment on pending litigation, adding that “the Sikh American community is a vital part of Sutter County.” Smith said the county “strives to ensure all residents feel safe, secure and free of being subjected to hate and discrimination.”

The suit seeks damages from the county and from the two civilian defendants for assault, claiming Claire suffered “severe emotional distress” and economic loss.

By December 2021, the Sikh Coalition got involved and helped Claire with free legal guidance. The advocacy group met twice with Sutter County Sheriff Brandon Barnes, who “acknowledged that his deputies failed to follow proper investigatory protocol in the course of these cases,” the Sikh Coalition said in a statement.

The Sikh Coalition said it obtained a police report in which the sheriff’s office recommended criminal charges against the woman who threatened Claire at the store, six months after the incident​​. 

The Sutter County District Attorney’s Office, in a statement to another media outlet, said the sheriff’s office referred the case for a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, not for hate crimes against Claire.

The statement from the sheriff’s office “did not contain sufficient evidence to prove this crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” said District Attorney Amanda Hopper, adding that an eye witness account shows “it did not appear that the suspect attempted to hit Mr. Claire but was merely trying to block him in.”

“If the alleged information contained in the civil documents are accurate, then my office has not received all of the reports and evidence referenced,” Hopper said. Charges could still be filed before May 11, 2024, she said.

The Sikh Coalition, however, said the eyewitness account corroborates that the woman at the grocery store “was acting in a dangerous and threatening manner.” The Sikh Coalition also said this information has been presented “repeatedly” to the district attorney’s office. 

Amrith Kaur Aakre, the Sikh Coalition’s legal director, said in a statement that these “hateful interactions can lead to violent results.” She noted the case of Khalid Jabara, who in 2016 was killed in Oklahoma after months of verbal harassment from a neighbor.

“No one deserves to feel threatened in their own community, and law enforcement — both police and prosecutors — simply must do better,” Aakre said.

“The large Sikh population in this area is only more reason to ensure that all members of this community feel safe and secure,” she added.

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