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To Shoot or Not to Shoot – The Ninth Circuit Says That Is The Question (for the jury)

Posted on: July 6th, 2018

By: Owen Rooney

On June 25, 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Estate of Lopez v. Gelhaus, arising out of the shooting in Sonoma County, California of a 13 year old who was holding a toy AK-47 gun.

In the mid-afternoon of October 22, 2013 two deputies for Sonoma County were on patrol in a high crime area with known gang activity.  No active crime was reported. They observed the child walking at a normal speed on the sidewalk with the “gun” pointed down. The deputies disagreed whether the child was holding the gun in his left or right hand.   One deputy chirped the siren briefly and activated the lights.  The deputies also disagreed whether the child looked over his shoulder in response to the chirp of the siren. After stopping, one deputy yelled “drop the gun” from a distance of approximately 65 feet.  The child did not drop the gun and rotated his body clockwise. As the child turned, one deputy saw the gun come around and shot and killed the child without issuing any additional warnings.  The orange tip on the toy gun that is required by federal law had been removed.

The child’s estate filed suit against Sonoma County and the deputy who shot the child for excessive force.  The deputy asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit based on qualified immunity.

The District Court denied defendants’ Motion and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  The case primarily turned on the number of times that the deputies had shouted for the child to put down his “weapon” and to what extent Andy had pointed the gun at the deputies.  The Court of Appeal noted that one of the deputy’s perspective would be different depending on whether the child had turned to his right or left, a factual dispute that could not be resolved on appeal.  Of note, the District Court only concluded that the gun barrel “was beginning to rise” from its position of having been pointed straight down; thus, the Court opined it was unknown if this posed an imminent threat to the deputies.

As the dissent pointed out, the precise angle that the gun was pointed is “not material” to the qualified immunity analysis because an officer need not delay firing if a person reasonably suspected of being armed makes a furtive movement, harrowing gesture, or serious verbal threat.  The dissent further noted that the District Court seemed to create a spectrum as to how far a suspect can raise their weapon before an officer can use lethal force.

The Ninth Circuit  has a long history of being reversed by the Supreme Court so there are some observers who are surprised that this decision was left intact.  The next procedural step is a trial and one can surmise that additional appeals will follow the end of any jury trial in this case.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Owen Rooney at [email protected].

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