2021 | Courts

Family suing Montgomery County police, alleging excessive force during 2019 raid

Officers used no-knock warrant to enter home, arrest couple and daughter

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A Wheaton-area family is suing Montgomery County police officers who they say used excessive force during a 2019 drug and weapons-related raid and subsequent arrests.

The family previously accused the officers of wrongdoing in a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich last year.

Hernan and Lilian Palma alleged that officers handcuffed them and their daughter, assaulted them, held them at gunpoint and damaged their home while executing a no-knock warrant in September 2019.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, names Montgomery County, its police department and Chief Marcus Jones as defendants. It also names nine officers individually  who participated in the raid:

  • Robert Farmer
  • Richard Armagost
  • Officer David Kocevar
  • Tomasz Machon
  • Gregory Martinez
  • Officer Patrick Robinson
  • John-Luke Espinas
  • Officer Sean Petty
  • Officer Glenn Altshuler

The lawsuit states that 28 other officers were involved in the raid, but the plaintiffs haven’t yet identified them.

Montgomery County spokesman Scott Peterson wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the county can’t comment on the lawsuit “due to pending litigation.”

The Palmas rented out their basement as an apartment to a woman in her 50s in 2019. The woman’s son, David Zelaya, a college student in his 20s, sometimes stayed there, too, according to court documents.

Starting in May 2019, Montgomery County police started investigating Zelaya for possession of firearms and distribution of controlled dangerous substances.

Police obtained a search warrant of the Palmas’ house on Sept. 12, 2019.

Around 4:30 a.m. the next day, police entered the home, waking up the family.

Hernan Palma saw the armed officers go into the living room and initially thought they were robbers, documents state. When an officer pushed a rifle into his chest, he pushed it away and was tackled by at least three officers, according to documents.

Hernan Palma asked the officers who they were, but they didn’t answer. Some officers pushed him onto a bed near his daughter’s room, and one punched him in the face, before pinning him face down on the bed, documents state.

“Continuing to hold Hernan down, the same three or four police officer defendants began striking his body and demanding that he hold out his arms. Hernan tried, but could not comply because his arms were trapped underneath his body, pinned down under the weight of the officers,” documents state.

Officers handcuffed Hernan Palma. Officers also handcuffed Lillian Palma and their daughter and detained them in separate rooms, with officers “applying so much pressure” to Lilian’s shoulder that “she feared her catheter would be ripped out,” documents state.

Police arrested Zelaya, then continued searching the house.

Officers uncuffed the Palmas after more than an hour and a half, “but continued to ransack their home while holding the Palmas in their family room,” documents state. An hour later, the officers left.

Hernan Palma, a Montgomery County firefighter, was forced to take more than two weeks off work to recover from his injuries, documents state. He said his face still hurts where the officer hit him and he has pain in both shoulders, as well as his right knee and ankle.

The complaint states that the Palmas have had trouble sleeping since the raid and are “constantly afraid of the police.” Their daughter is afraid to go out at night or call the police, and the family has installed cameras around the house to help them feel safer.

The complaint alleges that officers knocked down several doors to the family’s house, broke windows and damaged walls.

The complaint also takes issue with officers’ use of a no-knock warrant — a warrant in which officers may enter a house without announcing their presence. Out of 140 search warrants that Montgomery County police executed in 2019, 108 were no-knock warrants.

The County Council passed a bill in July 2020 that limits the police department’s use of force, including the use of no-knock warrants. But the complaint states that police should have had policies in place sooner to limit them.

The Palmas are suing for “actual damages, including nonmonetary damages, for pain and suffering and emotional distress” of at least $500,000 per plaintiff. Additionally, the suit seeks punitive damages against the police officers of at least $1 million.

The family is being represented by several attorneys with the Washington, D.C., firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP. The firm’s director of business development, Courtney Woolridge, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that the partners weren’t available for comment on Thursday.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com