Appellate decision in case against H.B. officers in fatal shooting gives both sides partial victory

Steven Schiltz, seen in an undated family photo, was shot to death by Huntington Beach police in March 2017. The city says he was threatening to harm people at the Central Park Sports Complex.
Steven Schiltz, seen in an undated family photo, was shot to death by Huntington Beach police in March 2017. The city says he was threatening to harm people at the Central Park Sports Complex.
(File Photo)

A three-judge federal appeals panel decided there is enough evidence to warrant a trial in a civil case against two Huntington Beach police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a man at a local sports park in 2017 and remanded claims of battery and negligence to a lower court.

However, because the panel determined the law wasn’t clear at the time of the shooting, it upheld the lower court’s ruling that granted the officers immunity on the question of excessive force.

The ruling filed Dec. 24 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel partially overturned a summary judgment by a U.S. District Court judge that determined there wasn’t enough evidence for the civil case brought by Steven Schiltz’s mother, Angela Hernandez, which sought $20 million in damages. The lawsuit alleged wrongful death, excessive force and inadequate training on the part of the officers, as well as negligence and battery.

Hernandez filed her lawsuit in July 2017, four months after Schiltz, 29, was shot by officers Trevor Jackson and Casey Thomas on a soccer field at the Huntington Central Park Sports Complex on March 9, when police said he looked like he was about to swing at a woman with an object he was holding. Police had responded to the complex after receiving calls about a man with a baseball bat and a broken bottle hitting trees and chasing people.

Hernandez’s lawsuit said Schiltz was running from someone who had attacked him and was unarmed when officers opened fire. The suit also alleged that law enforcement failed to call for medical care for Schiltz in a timely manner, resulting in his death.

On Aug. 30, 2018, District Judge Andrew Guilford threw out Hernandez’s case and granted the city’s request for a ruling without trial. Guilford wrote in his 13-page ruling that the city provided “significant evidence showing that the officers acted reasonably, in defense of the safety of others.”

Guilford also granted Jackson and Casey qualified immunity, which shields government officials from being sued over discretionary actions unless the actions violated clearly established federal law or constitutional rights.

The three 9th Circuit judges agreed that there was enough evidence for a jury to consider both the excessive force claim — alleging a federal violation of civil rights — and the battery and negligence matter.

But since there was no case on the books at the time of Schiltz’s shooting that would have put the officers “on notice that their use of force was excessive,” the panel upheld the lower court’s action of granting the officers immunity.

Senior Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder wrote in a dissenting opinion that “the pertinent facts are clear. There was no deadly weapon. Schiltz was armed at most with a pointed stick and was at least five feet from any bystander. The most that can be said is that [Schiltz] frightened bystanders. His conduct did not rise to the level of an immediate threat. The officers, in my view, should not be granted immunity on the theory that we do not yet have a decision saying the obvious.”

Since the shooting, the 9th Circuit heard a similar case in S.B. v. San Diego, which involved a man who was kneeling several feet from a sheriff’s deputy and was fatally shot by another deputy as soon as the man grabbed a knife from his back pocket.

“The court found [in the San Diego case] that because the victim was not within striking distance and would reasonably have to make additional movements to be an immediate threat,” a jury could deliberate the matter of excessive force, Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland said during oral arguments in the Hernandez case Nov. 8.

But the finding in the San Diego case could not be applied in the Huntington Beach case since it came after the Schiltz shooting, the panel said.

“We are very, very pleased,” Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates said in a statement Monday. “This was a great decision by the 9th Circuit, preceded by a great decision by Judge Guilford.”

The battery and negligence claims will go back to District Court, where Guilford likely will send the case to state court since it no longer involves matters of federal law, Hernandez’s attorney, Dale Galipo, said Tuesday.

“For us ... it’s a partial victory, but it’s clearly a victory,” Galipo said.

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