Two Anaheim police officers must face claims of excessive force after one officer shot a man in the head at close range as the man allegedly tried to leave a traffic stop.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a divided 7-4 decision, reinstated the excessive lethal-force claims by the family of Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez.
Gonzales died after officer Daron Wyatt shot him point-blank in the head as he allegedly tried to drive away from a traffic stop while Wyatt was in the van.
Wyatt and officier Matthew Ellis stopped Gonzalez after he mad a dangerous turn into a gas station in 2009, cutting off the officers in their squad car.
According to the account in the opinion: following that stop, the officers saw the same van weaving in and out of traffic and followed him. Although they had no information that the driver was involved in a crime they decided to stop him again.
Wyatt drew his gun as he approached and thought he saw Gonzalez reach for something between the driver and passenger seats of the van. Gonzalez was told to stop or he’d be shot and Gonzalez complied. Ellis spotted a plastic bag in Gonzalez hand, ordered him to turn off the car and show his hands.
Gonzalez instead reached for his mouth as if it swallow something. A struggle ensued with Wyatt striking Gonzalez in the head with a flashlight and climbing into the passenger seat to restrain him. Gonzalez allegedly stomped on the accelerator and the car lurched forward. Wyatt yelled at him to stop the car and failed to grab the keys in the ignition. It was at that point he shot Gonzalez in the head from six inches away. The van hit a parked car and came to a stop. Wyatt claimed the van was going 50 miles per hour and later said it traveled 50 feet in 10 seconds, which is less than four miles per hours, according to the court.
Gonzalez’ parents and daughter sued claiming the officers used excessive force.
“The key issue in this case is whether a reasonable jury would necessarily find that Wyatt perceived an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury at the time he shot Gonzalez in the head,” wrote Judge Richard Clifton wrote.
The combination of facts described by Wyatt appear to be “physically impossible,” Clifton said.
Because there is a genuine dispute about the facts over the speed and acceleration of the van and the danger to Wyatt, the case should be considered by a jury, the majority found.
“We do not hold that a reasonable jury must find in favor of the plaintiffs on this record, only that it could,” he said.
In dissent, Judge Stephen Trott said that because Gonzalez stomped on the van’s accelerator and fled from a traffic stop, rather than complying with officers and trapped an officer in the auto, it was enough to dismiss the lawsuit.
“As much as one might have wished for a different outcome, I conclude that Officer Wyatt’s act in self-defense was objectively reasonable,” Trott said.
He was joined by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, Judges Richard Tallman and Carlos Bea.
Joining Clifton in the majority were Judges Barry Silverman, Susan Graber, Margaret McKeown, Ronald Gould, Marsha Berzon and Morgan Christen.
Case: Gonzalez v. City of Anaheim, No. 11-56360