An appeals court overturned a federal court ruling and allowed a lawsuit to proceed against five Anaheim police officers who fatally shot a drug suspect five years ago.
The officers were acting on a tip from a confidential informant when they stopped suspected gang member, methamphetamine dealer, and parole violator Caesar Cruz for a broken taillight in a Walmart parking lot.
The informant told police Cruz was armed and determined not to go back to prison, reported Courthouse News.
Cruz backed his SUV into a patrol car, and all five officers jumped out of their cruisers with their weapons drawn.
Four of the officers later said Cruz had gotten out of his SUV and reached for the waistband of his pants, and all five officers opened fire – killing Cruz in a hail of about 20 shots.
A three-judge appellate panel on Thursday reversed a summary judgment issued two years ago by U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow, finding some of the officers’ claims to be “implausible.”
“Most obvious is the fact that Cruz didn’t have a gun on him, so why would he have reached for his waistband?” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski in a unanimous decision.
“Nobody likes a game of ‘he said, she said,’ wrote Kozinski, a Ronald Reagan appointee. “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.”
He wondered why Cruz would have reached for his waistband if he did not have a gun hidden in his pants.
“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.”
The judge said jurors might find other aspects of the officers’ story implausible.
“For starters, four of the officers said they saw Cruz reach for his waistband,” he wrote. “A jury might be skeptical that four pairs of eyes had a line of sight to Cruz’s hand as he stood between the open car door and the SUV.”
The decision also pointed out that Cruz was left-handed, but two officers claimed he had reached for his waistband with his right hand.
“A reasonable jury could doubt that Cruz would have reached for a non-existent weapon with his off hand,” Kozinski found.
One of the officers involved in Cruz’s death was also involved in the shooting of an unarmed suspect, David Raya, two years earlier and “recited the exact same explanation” in that case, the appeals judge found.
“Like Cruz, Raya was tracked down after a confidential informant told police that he had a gun and that he ‘wasn’t going back to prison,’ and, as with Cruz, the tip led to an altercation with Anaheim police that ended with an unarmed Raya biting the dust,” Kozinski found. “Perhaps the most curious similarity: According to the officers who shot the two unarmed men, both reached for their waistbands while the police had their guns trained on them.”
The judge said a jury “might find (that) relevant.”
“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.”
Watch this video tribute to Cruz posted online by Justice for Ernest Duenez Jr: