A federal judge ruled this week that a Huntington Beach police officer was justified when he shot and killed a 27-year-old homeless man during a scuffle outside of a 7-Eleven in 2017.
U.S. District Court Judge Josephine L. Staton reaffirmed the Orange County District Atty.’s office 2018 conclusion, which upheld Officer Eric Esparza’s decision to shoot Dillan Tabares.
Attorney Dale K. Galipo revived the case on behalf of Dillan Tabares’ mother, Tiffany Tabares, and filed a legal complaint against the city of Huntington Beach and Esparza, contending the officer used excessive force on a person with mental health issues who didn’t pose a threat.
Tiffany Tabares, who couldn’t be reached for comment, sought over $10 million in damages, plus attorney’s fees.
Galipo did not return requests for comment.
In Stanton’s ruling, which was published Tuesday, she wrote that the plaintiff didn’t demonstrate that Tabares exhibited obvious symptoms of mental illness.
Undisputed evidence established that Tabares — who was provoked only by a verbal command to halt — aggressively bore down on and attacked a retreating officer, which weighed in favor of the decision to use of deadly force, Stanton added.
Esparza repeatedly sought to avoid a deadly confrontation by retreating and using his Taser, Stanton wrote.
Tabares’ efforts to resist arrest threatened the officer’s safety, she added.
Police Chief Robert Handy called the court’s decision “gratifying” and a necessary affirmation of the dangers of police work.
“It’s tragic any time this happens for everybody involved but again we’re grateful,” he said Wednesday.
Bystanders outside the convenience store at 6012 Edinger Ave. captured portions of the conflict on video and posted them online. The videos prompted mixed reactions. Details, such as why Esparza approached Tabares, were unavailable until those involved testified in court.
It all started around 9:30 a.m. Sept. 22, 2017. Esparza was driving toward Springdale Street, with plans to conduct a patrol check of the alley behind the 99 Cents Only store, according to court records.
Esparza saw Tabares walking nearby. Esparza conducted his patrol check at the store and headed toward Springdale and Edinger, where he observed Tabares’ flinching hands and paranoid demeanor, which Esparza took as signs of potential drug intoxication, according to court records.
Esparza asked Tabares if he could talk to him. Esparza testified that Tabares appeared “dazed” with bloodshot and watery eyes, a characterization disputed by the Tabares family attorney, according to court documents.
Tabares walked away. Esparza told Tabares to stop and that he was being detained, according to court records.
Tabares eventually complied, turned to face Esparza, clenched his fists, began speaking loudly and moved toward the officer, according to the records.
Esparza, who was backing away, pulled out his handheld radio, called for backup and pulled out his stun gun, documents show.
Esparza told Tabares to stop but he continued to move toward him.
Three witnesses recorded what happened next.
According to images in one of their videos, Esparza held onto his radio and pointed his Taser at Tabares, who was about 2 feet away.
Esparza struck Tabares, who didn’t break his stride and continued, documents show.
Tabares threw a punch at Esparza’s head. Esparza parried with his left hand, knocking his radio to the ground.
Esparza wrapped his left arm around Tabares’ neck, placing him in a headlock. Tabares grasped at the officer’s thighs and waist.
The men wrestled upright before they fell with Esparza on top, according to the video.
Esparza threw a punch on their way down. Tabares grasped at the officer’s waist.
Though the video evidence is obstructed it appears Esparza eventually knelt on Tabares and threw three punches, according to documents.
Esparza twice commanded Tabares to let go of his gun and began tugging upward at his belt and holster, according to the evidence, and Tabares kicked upward twice at the officer, who was by then straddling the suspect.
Video shows Tabares removing a small black object from Esparza’s belt. According to Esparza’s account, while they were fighting on the ground Esparza felt his gun belt move. He saw Tabares grabbing and pulling on the handle of his gun, which he took as Tabares’ intention to kill him.
As Tabares tried to get to his feet, Esparza used his left hand to push him away by the head and neck and used his right hand to draw his gun, according to the documents. This happened about 40 seconds into the fight and four seconds after Tabares removed the object from Esparza’s belt, documents show.
The parties dispute whether Esparza immediately knew that the removed object was his flashlight and whether he erroneously identified it as his knife.
The two objects are roughly the same in length and color. The parties also disputed whether Tabares aggressively stood up and turned toward Esparza.
All of the videos, including footage of Esparza’s body camera, show Esparza backed away about 15 feet and Tabares stood up and turned to face him.
Esparza fired six shots in quick succession, paused and yelled “get down” twice before firing a seventh shot, documents show.
Tabares remained standing through the first six shots, collapsing after the seventh.
It was the seventh and last officer-involved shooting in Huntington Beach in 2017, according to department archives. Only one of the other shootings was fatal.
According to public records, Tabares, a homeless Navy veteran, had several previous run-ins with law enforcement, bounced in and out of Orange County jails from 2014 to 2016 for misdemeanor convictions, and had been paroled from state prison eight days before his fatal encounter. His mother told the Daily Pilot in 2017 that her son received an honorable discharge for testing positive for marijuana.