A lawsuit filed by the family of a man Anaheim police shot and killed during a traffic stop should proceed to trial, a federal appeals court decided Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, overturning a lower court's ruling, said jurors might reasonably conclude that the police lied when they said they saw Caesar Cruz reaching for his waistband when they shot him in December 2009.
"Nobody likes a game of 'he said, she said,' Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote for the panel. "But far worse is the game of 'we said, he's dead.' Sadly, this is too often what we face in police shooting cases like this one."
Anaheim police stopped Cruz after an informant identified him as a gang member who sold methamphetamine and carried a gun. Police quickly learned that Cruz was a discharged parolee whose prior convictions included a felony involving a firearm.
Police tried to stop Cruz for having a broken tail light. Cruz pulled into a parking lot, and several police vehicles surrounded him. Cruz backed his SUV into one of the cars, but eventually stopped.
The officers got out of their cars with their weapons drawn. They shouted at Cruz to get to the ground as he was emerging from his car, the court said.
Four officers later testified they shot Cruz because he was reaching for his waistband, where he might have hidden a gun.
But no gun was found on his body, which was suspended by his seat belt. Police said they recovered a gun from the passenger seat.
"To decide this case a jury would have to answer just one simple question: Did the police see Cruz reach for his waistband?" Kozinski wrote. "If they did, they were entitled to shoot; if they didn't, they weren't."
The 9th Circuit faulted U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow, a Clinton appointee, for dismissing the suit based on the testimony of the police officers.
Why would Cruz have reached for his waist if he had no gun there, the panel asked.
"Cruz probably saw that he was surrounded by officers with guns drawn," Kozinski wrote. "In that circumstance, it would have been foolish — but not wholly implausible — for him to have tried to fast-draw his weapon in an attempt to shoot his way out. But for him to make such a gesture when no gun is [in his waistband] makes no sense whatsoever."
Given the "curious and material factual discrepancies," the appeals panel said, Morrow should not have ruled that only an unreasonable jury would have doubted the officers' version.