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Appellate judges rule in favor of Dillan Tabares’ mother in civil suit against city of Huntington Beach

Dillan Tabares, 27, was shot and killed by a police officer outside of a Huntington Beach 7-Eleven in 2017.
Dillan Tabares, 27, was shot and killed by a police officer outside of a Huntington Beach 7-Eleven in 2017.
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

An appellate court last week ruled in favor of Tiffany Tabares, the mother of a 27-year-old who was shot and killed by a Huntington Beach Police Department officer outside of a local 7-Eleven in 2017.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Feb. 17 that a jury could find Officer Eric Esparza acted unreasonably when he shot Dillan Tabares seven times on Sept. 22, 2017, across the street from Marina High School.

Additionally, the judges ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude that Esparza should have suspected that Tabares had mental health issues, and that he unreasonably failed to follow police protocol on dealing with potentially mentally ill people before using force.

The opinion written by Judge Ryan D. Nelson reversed a previous ruling by U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton, who said in 2019 that she found no evidence that the officer used excessive force on Tabares and that his actions were justified, given that Tabares bore down on and attacked a retreating officer.

The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Esparza, so Tiffany Tabares filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Huntington Beach seeking more than $10 million in damages. After Staton’s decision, Tiffany Tabares appealed, pursuing a negligence cause of action.

In its decision, the three-judge panel addressed the difference between the Fourth Amendment barring unreasonable searches and seizures and California negligence laws.

“We hold that Ms. Tabares presented sufficient evidence that Officer Eric Esparza’s shooting of Mr. Tabares could be found negligent by a reasonable juror under the broader formulation of reasonableness in California law,” Nelson wrote in the decision. “Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the negligence claim and remand for further proceedings.”

The case would now be bounced back to the federal district courthouse in Santa Ana.

U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton says the federal court’s current ban on jury trials makes sense as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Tiffany Tabares said Monday that she is happy to get her day in court.

“I just want our opportunity to have accountability and the truth to come out,” she said. “I want every single bit of evidence out there ... People are saying I’m going after money or call me all kind of horrible names. All I’m wanting is for the people that determine who goes to jail and who doesn’t go to jail, the people that can pull a gun on you and handcuff you and throw you behind bars, that they are accountable and up front. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Catherine Sweetser, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing Tiffany Tabares in the suit, said the decision went through the evidence very thoroughly and set out California negligence law in a very reasoned way.

“From plaintiff’s perspective, Mr. Tabares should never have been detained in the first place,” Sweetser said. “What the District Court’s opinion really showed is that officers do have a duty when they contact citizens, and in fact, officers should not stop and detain citizens for no reason.”

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates said Monday that lawyers are petitioning to have the case reviewed again by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with an “en banc” panel.

If the rehearing is granted, the case would be heard before a larger panel of 11 judges, Gates said.

“We’re obviously disappointed by the ruling,” Gates said. “We believe that the three-judge panel got it wrong and didn’t see the issues correctly or apply the law correctly ... I go back to what the officer did in the circumstances that he was faced with. He did everything right under the law. Qualified immunity should shield him from a case like this, and we’re going to take every step necessary to defend our officers, especially those out in the line of duty that are faced with threat of violence or death themselves. We have to protect our officers, and we have to fight these fights. That helps to keep them safe, frankly.”

Witnesses of the incident outside of the convenience store at 6012 Edinger Ave. posted videos online in the days following the shooting. Reaction was mixed to the confrontation, which included Esparza using his Taser gun on Dillan Tabares and Tabares grabbing an item off Esparza’s utility belt. According to court records, Tabares grabbed Esparza’s flashlight, but there was disagreement over whether the officer thought it was his knife.

Esparza backed away before Tabares turned to face him. Esparza fired six shots, according to court records, pausing and yelling “get down” twice before firing a seventh shot. At that point, Tabares collapsed.

Tabares, who was a homeless Navy veteran, had several previous run-ins with law enforcement. After his death, authorities tied him to the fatal beating of 80-year-old Richard Darland in Huntington Beach on Sept. 19, 2017 — three days before Tabares’ own death. Darland was a friend who had tried to help Tabares with his issues with drugs and mental illness, former Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy said.

Tony Rackauckas, the Orange County district attorney at the time, said that a crime lab examiner found blood on Tabares’ pants that matched Darland’s DNA. Handy added that surveillance videos showed that Tabares was near Darland’s home on the 7800 block of Ellis Avenue before and after Darland was beaten.

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