Civil Liberties

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

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


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.