Anaheim police did not use excessive force during a struggle in which a man suspecting of possessing drugs was shot in the head, a divided federal appeals court ruled Monday.
A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court ruled 2-1 to uphold the dismissal of a civil-rights lawsuit by the family of Adolf Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez, who was killed by an Anaheim police officer in 2009.
Two Anaheim police officers said they had a near-collision with Gonzalez at 2 a.m. while on another call. The officers ran Gonzalez's license plate number, learned his van had been involved in a previous narcotics stop and decided to follow him "to see if any law enforcement action was necessary," the court said.
The officers said they noticed Gonzalez's van was weaving within its lane and pulled it over. A struggle ensued inside Gonzalez's van when the officers suspected that he was attempting to get rid of illegal drugs.
The officers said Gonzalez refused to obey their commands. Officer Daron Wyatt got in the passenger side of the van and began to punch Gonzalez in the face. The second officer hit Gonzalez on the back of his head with a flashlight, according to the court.
Gonzalez then put the van in gear and accelerated with Wyatt inside. The officers said the van was traveling at 50 mph. Wyatt then shot Gonzalez in the head.
"Not only was Gonzalez acting strangely, but the officers had reason to believe he was committing and then attempting to conceal a drug offense," wrote Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, joined by Judge Stephen S. Trott.
"He continually ignored the officers' commands and resisted their attempts to physically restrain him. And when he attempted to drive away with an officer in the passenger seat, he made a volatile situation all the more dangerous."
Judge Richard R. Clifton, in a dissent, said the officers' version of what happened "appears to me to be physically impossible" and was "not internally consistent." He said the officers' statements suggested the van may not have been traveling at a high speed.
"It is for the jury to weigh the evidence, not us," Clifton wrote.
"If Wyatt was sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle going 3 to 4 miles per hour when he whipped out his gun and, without warning, shot Gonzalez dead, a reasonable jury might conclude that his actions were unreasonable," Clifton wrote.