Daniel Landeros had no business driving.
His license was suspended. He was ignoring red lights and behaving so erratically at the wheel that his wife, Jennifer Landeros, made him stop and let her out.
It was the middle of the week after Thanksgiving 2016. Landeros, 41, a union tile installer from Elk Grove, California, and father of five, took off alone. Jennifer Landeros called the non-emergency number for Elk Grove police to say she was worried about her husband.
Within hours, he was dead, having caused a car crash while high on meth. But not because he—nor any other motorists—were fatally injured by the collision. Instead, what happened next is the subject of an ongoing federal civil trial in Sacramento pitting Jennifer Landeros and the couple’s children against five police officers and the city that employed them, with a jury set to decide who bears responsibility for Landeros’ death that night.
After the crash, police officers tased Landeros and then pinned him face down on the ground, handcuffed with a knee in his back, until he stopped breathing. The family says they killed someone who no longer posed an imminent threat despite his behavior, and was clearly in the throes of either a mental health episode, substance misuse, or both.
The city and cops say Landeros’ own reckless behavior, along with heart failure, caused his death.
Four years before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the death of Daniel Landeros did not draw national attention (the Sacramento Bee has kept tabs on the case). But the trial is set to conclude this week in a climate of heightened awareness about police use of force, after the Floyd case introduced millions to the horrors of “positional asphyxia”—suffocating in a prone position—and how restraint by cops can cause it.
In a community that generally votes Democratic but where law-and-order sentiment runs high, and the top county law-enforcement officials are self-styled conservatives, the Landeros case is also a test of where a local jury’s natural sympathies rest at a time of heightened anxieties about public safety.
Jurors convicted ex-Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin of murder for the several agonizing minutes he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck, rejecting defense efforts to blame Floyd’s death on drug use and heart disease. Like Floyd, and Eric Garner before him, Landeros can be heard in video of his arrest crying out, “I can’t breathe.”
But jurors in his case have a very different set of facts to consider. Garner was selling loose cigarettes from the curb. Floyd was being questioned about a supposedly fake $20 bill passed at a convenience store. Landeros—in a state of methamphetamine intoxication, according to his autopsy—swerved into oncoming traffic and struck three passenger vehicles near an intersection where two Elk Grove police officers happened to be conducting a traffic stop, court records show.
The nighttime crash left other motorists injured, and when Landeros got out of his totaled truck, bleeding from a forehead gash, he ran away when the officers approached him, court records show. Several more officers arrived to assist in what police body- and dash-cam video showed was a chaotic confrontation. A local prosecutor would later clear the officers of criminal wrongdoing.
To the Landeros family, the only thing that matters is what police officers did, or failed to do, once they had Daniel subdued. The lawsuit brought by his wife and five children ages 11-23 claims that he died not because he was agitated, high, nor in poor health—as the defendants argue—but because long after he had stopped struggling, the officers used their weight to keep him pinned face-down, cutting off his oxygen.
Daniel Landeros was the youngest of his parents’ four children—“the baby,” an older brother, Vincent Landeros Jr., told The Daily Beast during a break in the trial last week, which several other members of the Landeros family have traveled to Sacramento to watch.
“He was a good father, a great family man, a provider for his family,” Vincent said. “Always working. Just trying to make things work.”
His other brother, Julian Landeros, called Daniel “my 1st best friend” in a text to The Daily Beast.
He also had a slew of personal problems. In pre-trial filings, lawyers for both sides battled over how much of his past—run-ins with law enforcement, substance misuse, and financial strain—jurors would be allowed to consider. Court records show Landeros’ license was suspended on the night he died because of a previous DUI allegation.
After his wife exited the truck, Landeros kept going—picking up speed until he swerved into traffic and caused a multi-vehicle pileup. Occupants of the vehicles Landeros hit were hurt, but not seriously, court records show.
The first two officers to approach a bloodied Landeros said that when they asked him if he’d been involved in the accident, he yelled, “You’re not real!” and ran off.
In grainy body- and dash-cam video of the nighttime arrest obtained by a local ABC affiliate, one of the two officers giving chase knocks him down with a Taser, and a struggle ensues as more officers arrive to help.
Handcuffed, Landeros keeps struggling to get up, and from the bottom of the pile makes his muffled plea for air. Minutes later, with Landeros no longer struggling, and a full-body restraint known as a WRAP being delivered to the scene, the cross-chatter among the Elk Grove officers suddenly turns alarmed.
“Is he bleeding from his nose?… He’s blue—he’s turning blue, dude.… Roll him over.”
Officers turned the motionless Landeros on to his back and administered CPR, but couldn’t revive him. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
The Sacramento County coroner’s report said Landeros died suddenly while in restraints and with methamphetamines in his system, and that his agitated state after the car crash, as well as the struggle with police in which he was Tased, also contributed to his death. The coroner declined to classify it as asphyxia, or even rule on whether his death was a homicide, indicating the exact mix of contributing causes “could not be determined.”
At trial, the lawyer for five officers and the city, Bruce Praet, argued that Landeros’ weight and overall health were factors. Praet did not respond to a voicemail and email seeking comment.
Unlike the Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death, none of the Elk Grove officers present when Landeros died in their custody ever faced criminal charges. An investigation in 2017 by the Sacramento District Attorney’s office cleared them, finding “no credible evidence to support an allegation of criminal negligence or excessive force against any of the officers,” the prosecutor, Anne Marie Schubert, wrote in a summary to the Elk Grove police chief.
“Immediately upon realizing Landeros had become unresponsive,” the letter said, “officers checked his condition, called for medical assistance, and performed CPR until medical personnel arrived. It cannot be said that the officers acted in an aggravated, culpable, gross, or reckless manner. They did not act with a disregard for human life or an indifference to the consequences of their actions. In fact, the officers clearly demonstrated a proper regard for human life.”
The lawsuit argues that whatever Landeros’ health or state or mind, keeping him pinned face down for several minutes with a knee in his back on pavement while he was handcuffed was both reckless and negligent, given the widespread police and medical literature warning of the dangers of positional asphyxia.
“I’m frankly surprised every time I see one of these cases that we’re still having this discussion,” Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, told The Daily Beast. “The idea of keeping someone in the prone position especially after they’ve been handcuffed is so clearly against over 30 years of police practice.”
Stoughton, who testified against Chauvin as an expert witness on police restraint techniques, hasn’t studied the Landeros case but said that positional asphyxia “is something that’s so foundational, it gets touched on in basic training.”
In a pretrial deposition, a lawyer for the Landeros family, Stewart Katz, got the police department’s hired lawyer, Praet, to admit that Elk Grove police at the time had no specific policy for restraining prone, handcuffed individuals. The Landeros family’s lawyers, Katz and Dale Galipo, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The Daily Beast also asked the city and the police department if they have changed their policies, whether any of the officers named in the lawsuit are still on the force, or have ever been the subjects of excessive force complaints. Multiple calls for comment to Elk Grove’s police department, city attorney, and city spokesperson were not returned.
Sacramento County, also home of the state capitol, is known for its pro-cop politics, a veteran defense lawyer there, Mark Reichel, told The Daily Beast. The outgoing three-term county sheriff recently lost his bid to win a seat in Congress as a self-styled “Conservative Law and Order Constitution candidate.” The top prosecutor, former Republican Schubert, ran for California Attorney General in 2022—but lost—as a right-leaning independent with harsh words for Democrats focused on reducing jail populations.
Reichel cited the death of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man, who was shot in 2018 by two Sacramento city officers in the backyard of his grandmother’s house. Clark was unarmed, but Schubert didn’t charge the officers. In a press conference, she suggested Clark was suicidal, citing texts that investigators found by unlocking his phone. Critics called it character assassination.
Schubert’s office did prosecute a former Elk Grove cop who had been fired from the force for kicking a robbery suspect in the face as he lay on the ground—an attack captured on police video. A jury convicted the officer of assault in March.
In the Landeros case, the jury was expected to begin deliberations as soon as Tuesday.
Vince’s first day attending the trial came late last week, which he spent watching the officers testify and justify their actions. But even as he held out hope for a victory, if video of his brother’s arrest was replayed—jurors saw it last Tuesday—he didn’t think he’d stay in the courtroom.
“I can’t watch it,” he said.