A South County teenager is suing the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. and one of its deputies for civil rights violations, among other things, over a high-profile 2019 incident where the off-duty deputy pointed a gun at the teenager’s face at a San Clemente skatepark.
It’s one of the latest lawsuits against Sheriff Don Barnes’ department, following the death of Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, last year at the hands of deputies who stopped him for jaywalking in the same city.
“Get on your knees or I will shoot you in the fucking face,” is what Deputy Michael Thalken said as he pointed a gun at the face of San Juan Capistrano resident Max Chance III on Oct. 12, 2019, according to the lawsuit. Click here to read it.
The 18-year-old — whose father, Max Chance Jr., happens to be a retired deputy who once supervised Thalken, according to attorneys — was 16 at the time of the incident.
He was at the skatepark with some friends when Thalken walked over from the adjacent little league field that night, according to the complaint, which says Thalken was intoxicated and angered by the music playing from a nearby live band, shouting “Where is the tough guy” while another bystander mimicked Thalken’s drunk-like walk.
Chance III had done nothing to instigate Thalken besides raising his skateboard and backing away in self defense, the lawsuit says, when Thalken tried to grab the teenager’s wrist.
Representing Chance III are father-and-son attorneys Eric and Connor Traut, the latter of which is the current Mayor of Buena Park.
Eric Traut, who spoke to Voice of OC on Wednesday, said the lawsuit comes after county prosecutors and Sheriff officials have done little about Thalken’s actions besides placing him on leave at the time and later disciplining him.
Thalken, who is an investigator for the Sheriff’s Dept., remains an employee there, according to Sheriff spokesperson Carrie Braun.
“A criminal investigation was done and submitted to the DA’s office, and they declined to file charges, so an internal administrative investigation was done and discipline was issued and served, and he is back to duty,” Braun said, declining to comment on the lawsuit.
Braun said she was unable to disclose the nature of Thalken’s discipline.
Traut says Chance III suffered emotional anguish, as well as post traumatic stress, following the incident. They filed a tort claim for damages against the county in May, with no response. The lawsuit was filed in Orange County Superior Court on March 9.
The incident was captured on cell phone video by several observers, which the lawsuit references in recounting the events of that night in 2019. The video was also played by local TV news stations covering the incident in the days following.
Thalken only identified himself as law enforcement once Chance III complied with Thalken’s demands to get on his knees, according to the complaint, which also alleges that Thalken misrepresented what happened when other deputies arrived on scene and when Chance, Jr. called Thalken and revealed that the teenager was his son.
The lawsuit claims Thalken told Chance, Jr. that the kids were “douche bags with mob mentality” who “came up aggressively behind me, and your kid went at me with a skateboard. They were all crowding around me. I had to pull my gun. Your kid seems decent. Everything is okay now…”
The lawsuit says witnesses’ cell phone videos refuted all of that, and seeks monetary damages and compensation for the costs of counseling that Chance III has received following the incident, Traut said.
“Max is a good kid and mental health wise, he didn’t have any issues,” Traut said. “That’s dramatically changed now. He’s been fearful, anxious, has nightmares, and has a real PTSD type of situation where it’s enveloped him now the past couple years.”
Traut said he expects a trial date sometime in late 2022.
The Sheriff’s Dept., which is named in the lawsuit alongside Thalken over claims the department played a role in Thalken’s conduct, currently faces another lawsuit over the deputy shooting death of Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, in the same city.
Critics and Reinhold’s family say the shooting was unjustified, leading to the death of the very man that the two deputies — assigned to homeless outreach — were supposed to help.
The Sheriff’s Dept. has said little in light of the ongoing investigation into the shooting, but maintained that Reinhold at one point tried to grab a deputy’s gun. Officials last month also revealed footage of the shooting for the first time.
A hearing in the lawsuit has yet to be scheduled, according to one of the Reinhold family’s attorneys on the case, Neil Gehlawat.