A California appeals court has thrown out a $1.1-million jury award to a man who was holding a toy gun when a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy shot and wounded him.
A Los Angeles County jury had awarded the sum in 2013 to William Fetters, who was 15 years old when he was shot in the chest by a deputy. An L.A. judge had also awarded Fetters more than $2.3 million for legal fees.
But a three-judge panel from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal found that elements of Fetters' plea deal in Juvenile Court -- which kept him out of prison and resulted in the dismissal of all charges -- barred him from filing a civil rights claim. The plea deal, the panel said, was essentially an admission that prevented him from filing a claim.
The jury's award and the legal fees were both tossed out.
Fetters was on his bicycle and playing with other children in Palmdale on a spring night in 2009 when two deputies approached and ordered him to drop his weapon, according to court papers. He was holding a plastic toy pistol, with a wood grip and black-painted barrel, according to court papers.
What immediately transpired before the shooting was the subject of dispute.
Fetters said he dropped the weapon, while two deputies said he pointed the gun as he turned toward them, according to court papers.
Prosecutors later charged Fetters with three misdemeanor counts of brandishing an imitation firearm so as to cause harm. He pleaded no contest to the charges in September 2009, according to court papers.
As part of the deal, he was placed on six months of probation, and after completing the term, the case against him was dismissed.
Fetters brought a civil rights claim against the county two months after his criminal case was dismissed. He alleged that the deputy who shot him used unreasonable and excessive force.
Against the objections of the county and the deputy, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that the civil rights case could proceed despite Fetters' Juvenile Court case.
Under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1994, Heck v. Humphrey, those convicted of a crime are barred from filing a civil rights lawsuit if judgment in the plaintiff's favor implies the previous conviction is invalid. The L.A. County Superior Court judge had ruled that Fetters' plea did not amount to a conviction.
But the appellate court panel, in an opinion written by Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson, disagreed, explaining that Fetters' juvenile case was a conviction and that his probationary term was a punishment.
Fetters' plea deal, in which he admitted to brandishing the replica gun at the deputy, had "established justification for [the deputy's] split-second use of deadly force," Johnson wrote.
Fetters fully recovered from his physical injuries, his attorney told The Times in 2013.
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