Police Abuse

Federal Court Questions 'Self-Serving' Police Account of Fatal Shooting

Jury trial ordered for California cops who shot and killed an unarmed suspect

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Steven Sweetleaf/Flickr

Last week The New York Times published a widely read op-ed titled "How the Supreme Court Protects Bad Cops." According to the author, one of the key ways SCOTUS shields the police is by consistently extending the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement agents who employ deadly force against criminal suspects. Thanks to such deferential decisions, the op-ed observed, the high court has made it "very difficult, and often impossible, to hold police officers and the governments that employ them accountable for civil rights violations."

Perhaps the Supreme Court should take a few pointers from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Last Thursday, that court refused to let one California police department off the hook for a fatal shooting that claimed the life of an unarmed suspect. Declining to accept at face value what he characterized as the "self-serving" police narrative, 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski ruled that not only was there reason to doubt the officers' version of the facts; there was reason to "conclude that the officers lied."

At issue in the case of Cruz v. City of Anaheim is a December 2009 incident arising from tips made by a confidential police informant. According to those tips, Caesar Cruz, an alleged gang member and methamphetamine dealer, was driving around Anaheim with a gun in his waistband, informing listeners that "he was not going back to prison."

In response, Anaheim police moved in, stopping Cruz for a traffic violation and surrounding him at a Wal-Mart parking lot. What happened next is in dispute. According to the police, Cruz fully exited his vehicle and reached for his waistband. Several seconds later he was dead, shot multiple times by the officers.

Cruz's relatives question that official narrative. Contrary to the officers' claims, they note, Cruz's body was found tangled in his seat belt. He had never fully exited the car. Nor was he carrying a gun on his person at the time he was killed. Charging the police with wrongful death and with violating the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Cruz's relatives filed suit in federal court against the officers and the city.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California sided entirely with the police. No reasonable jury, that court declared, could ever seriously doubt the official police version of the event. As such, the case against the cops was kicked out of court.

But now it appears the district court spoke too hastily. "In this case, there's circumstantial evidence that could give a reasonable jury pause," observed Judge Kozinski in his ruling last week for the 9th Circuit. "Most obvious is the fact that Cruz didn't have a gun on him, so why would he have reached for his waistband?" As Kozinski put it, "for him to make such a gesture when no gun is there makes no sense whatsoever."

Equally troubling is the record of Officer Bruce Linn, one of the five cops who shot and killed Cruz. In August 2011, Linn was involved in the similar shooting death of an unarmed suspect named David Rayer. Like Cruz before him, Rayer came to police attention via a confidential informant. Also like Cruz, Rayer was unarmed when the police claimed he reached for his waistband and shot him dead.

"Given these curious and material factual discrepancies," Judge Kozinski declared in conclusion, "the district court erred in ruling that only an unreasonable or speculative jury could disbelieve Officers Phillips, Vargas, Stauber and Linn's version of events."

The matter of Cruz v. Anaheim will now end up before a jury—which is right where it belongs.

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  1. Oh, Kozinski. Why can’t we have more judges like him?

    1. Judge Richard Posner was pretty good this last week or so himself. While not about law enforcement his questioning of the state attorney was good stuff.

    2. Because going against the poice gets you punished.

  2. “Most obvious is the fact that Cruz didn’t have a gun on him, so why would he have reached for his waistband?”

    Not siding with the cops here, but this is highly dubious. Someone might reach to their ‘waistband’ area for a whole host of reasons, none of which have anything to do with a gun.

    It seems to me that there are other facts of the case which destroy the police narrative. But concluding that since Cruz was unarmed (damning to the police account) he couldn’t have possibly reached into his waistband is a dubious line of logic.

    This suggests that shootings of people who are completely unarmed will be considered universally justified as long as a case can be made that a furtive reach toward a waistband was made. Which, in my opinion, is bullshit.

    I may be overthinking this, but I wish courts would clearer rulings that wouldn’t give bad actors such easy ‘outs’ in future cases.

    1. Given that the victim of that shooting was left hanging in his seat belt, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why he might have reached for his waist – to undo the fucking seat belt he was wearing. When police were screaming at him to get out of the car.

      Clearly a deadly threat to officer safety!

      1. Remember, confliction orders such as “Don’t Move!” and “Get out of the car!” are not excuses.

        He disobeyed an order, doesn’t mater which one. So they shot him.

        I hope they burn in hell.

    2. You’re being too clever by half here.

      The circuit court said was there were no facts in dispute for a jury to resolve.

      The 9th appeals court said hell yes there are facts to resolve.

      And that’s it.

      1. Most obvious is the fact that Cruz didn’t have a gun on him, so why would he have reached for his waistband?”

        The court’s language, not mine. This is not “Most obvious”, it is one small, rather irrelevant fact in a sea of others. As I alluded to, and Another David pointed out above, he probably DID reach for his waistband, to undo the damned seatbelt– required by law.

  3. Perhaps the Supreme Court should take a few pointers from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit

    Those weak-kneed Commie sympathizers? They’re not even real Americans!

  4. Alex Kozinski ruled that not only was there reason to doubt the officers’ version of the facts; there was reason to “conclude that the officers lied.”

    Narratives were presented.

  5. No reasonable jury, that court declared, could ever seriously doubt the official police version of the event.

    Not if they know what’s good for them they won’t.

  6. This seems a reasonable decision. Otoh, ceteris paribus, it IS true that juries DO give, as they should, the benefit of the doubt to cops. Refardless, if cips were required to wear body cameras , we could all be benefited by more reliable case evidence and fewer cases where it’s cop’s word to rely on and that’s it. Again, numerous officers in my agency have expressed their desire to wear body cameras, but it’s our administration that prohinits it. Yes, it’s cop-o-cratsvagainst a trith telling device and street cops FOR it. My humble prediction is that within a decade, body cameras will be the norm in most agencies and that will benefit all the right people and damage the right ones too.

    1. Despite your poor spelling, I think I agree with you. Because of your poor spelling,
      I reserve the right to withdraw my endorsement.

      1. Oh, except for that bullshit about giving the benefit of the doubt to cops. Fuck that!

    2. This is why I have been disqualified from juries, I don’t believe cops any more than other citizens.

      Some cops lie, some don’t, some civs lie, some don’t.

    3. As they should? Why exactly should juries give cops the benefit of the doubt? Whether a cop’s account is to be trusted should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

  7. For the judge to make the claim “for him to make such a gesture when no gun is there makes no sense whatsoever,” seems a stretch. Having just binged watch Breaking Bad, the episode ‘One Minute’ came on. It’s the one where Hank, DEA agent, has two hit men coming after him. He receives an anonymous call warning him and instinctively reaches to his right side waistband (where he keeps his service revolver)– but freezes when it’s not there. It’s become cliche in police dramas that the good cop gets in trouble and is put on leave, without pay, after handing in his badge and gun. Inevitably our intrepid hero is put in a situation where he needs his gun and zounds! it’s not there. “Makes no sense whatsoever?” Huh.

    1. Another illiterate commenter. The circuit court said there were no facts in dispute, ergo no need for a jury. The 9th said hell yes there are facts in dispute, and that requires a jury trial.

      Learn to read. You’ve certainly got the knack for writing lots and lots of words without thinking.

    2. Right.

      Huh?

  8. Here’s what I don’t get. The guy was still in his car seat with his seat belt on or in the process of coming off and was shot.

    These cops never had to see a gun in the first place to fire.

    Again, can anyone explain to me why soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan had stricter rules of engagement than American police? Reason and every other media outlet is ignorant/silent on this sad fact.

    A shoot in the military required positive identification not only of a weapon, but that the individual in question had or was intended to use it. Soldiers tolerated having armed Iraqis and Afghanis around them all the time, and could not shoot. Yet here stateside, cops are allowed to open fire if they think they see something remotely resembling a weapon or if there is a movement that could even be construed as a suspect reaching for one.

    Cops make more money than soldiers. Why are they held to such a lower standard?

  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09…..tests.html

    The details of this case are simply amazing. Mentally-disabled half-brothers coerced to confessing to a brutal rape and murder and stewing in jail for over 30 years when the actual perpetrator lived a block from the crime scene. NC’s innocence commission recently reviewed evidence that was somehow overlooked by authorities (I wonder why) to exonerate the men.

    1. Spoiler: the former prosecutor that got the death sentence for one of the brothers still believes in their guilt; the current prosecutor didn’t even bother to dispute the commission’s findings.

      1. The former prosecutors rarely second guess themselves, it’s almost as if they have some twisted incentive to stack up convictions.

  10. When a grand jury indicts a police officer, the case should go to trial and be decided by a jury; for judges to throw out a case under those circumstances in unacceptable. But if that jury finds the officer “not guilty”, then people should generally accept that verdict.

  11. Sort of OT: Cops claim use of force would be unnecessary if we would all just comply. http://www.policeone.com/Offic…..-of-force/

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  13. It’s known as the Waistband Defensse technique in law.

    Don’t you people read anything?

  14. “Something hit my foot, he reached for it, the dog barked, …” blah blah blah. Seems like startling, angering, or just being at the wrong place with a police officer can be detrimental to your health. Perhaps we need less mean and less jittery peace officers?

    1. In England, cops stunned and disabled a machete wielding killer who just beheaded a woman, but one officers broke his wrist.

      Why do I feel I’ll never read a similar story about US cops?

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  16. …to a court where it is as likely that justice is served as anywhere else – that is not. Our court system, with it’s lawyers, judges and rules, all designed to the benefit of it’s players (said lawyers and judges) will, in the end, do what’s best for them and not the people before and beside them. And I would never serve on a jury, unless it was to nullify.

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