Qualified immunity and Villanueva v. California, 2021

Police shootings and the use of deadly force has been very present and publicized over the last years, and these actions can raise legal questions of whether Police are protected by qualified immunity when there is a shooting. And stakes rise when the shooting leads to death.

That brings us to this January 28, 2021 Federal decision Villanueva v. California. The Court steps through several legal issues, but I’m just going to focus on the main one: here, does qualified immunity protect these officers in a fatal shooting given these facts. That’s the teaser…so let’s understand what happened and what laws apply.

What happened here?

I’ll start by saying the facts are in dispute at parts. It begins with a high-speed chase between Police and civilians Villanueva and Orozco. Villanueva stopped his car and did a 3-point turn. From here, the undisputed facts are:

“The Officers immediately exited their vehicle and drew their firearms. Cleveland stood near the open driver’s side door of the police car and Henderson stood near the open passenger’s door. At the same time, Villanueva attempted to reverse out of MacArthur in a three-point turn that resulted in the rear of his vehicle pointing toward the Pritchard dead-end and the front generally facing the Officers, who were approximately 15 to 20 feet away. The Officers then opened fire on the vehicle and shouted a warning of some kind at the same time or within a second of firing. The shots killed Villanueva and injured Orozco.”

Where were the discrepancies in the facts?

The Police testified “Villanueva was driving ‘recklessly’ during the three-point turn, to the point that he hit a car behind him, and that he faced their direction and hit the gas before shots were fired.”

That may sound aggressive. It also is drastically different to what other witnesses testified to:

From Orozco: he testified “Villanueva was driving below the speed limit while making the turn, and that Orozco did not feel the Silverado collide with another vehicle behind it. He also attested that the Silverado was not moving directly toward the police vehicle at the time of the shooting, and that he did not see either officer ‘in the path of the truck’ at any point before or during the shooting.

From witness Lino Mendez: “he did not hear the Silverado collide with another vehicle, the engine rev, or the tires screech, and that he was very confident that the Silverado did not accelerate toward the police vehicle.

From witness Abel Orozco (no relation to Villanueva or Orozco) testified: “the turn ‘wasn’t fast’ and that he ‘didn’t hear no revving or no burning tires or anything like that.’

From witness Thomas Hinkle, Jr.: Villanueva’s Silverado “tried to make a U-turn at a ‘very slow’ speed and was not rushing. He never heard the engine rev and did not see the Silverado accelerate forward toward the police sedan.”

So, procedurally:

Here, Plaintiff filed a Federal 1983 case alleging the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Police moved for summary judgement against Plaintiffs. Basically this means Police argued there was there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, even if the facts are taken most in light of the Plaintiff. If Defendant wins this motion, the case can get dismissed against Plaintiff.

So, the Police tried for this motion for summary judgment claiming they are protected by qualified immunity. With the disputed facts above, the Court used the facts most in light of Plaintiff and held in favor of Plaintiff—denying the Police’s motion. The Police appealed that decision, so that brings us to where we are now and the Court used these as the facts:

“[A]fter Villanueva stopped his truck following a vehicular pursuit, he cautiously performed a three-point-turn, his truck—which was 15 to 20 feet away from the Officers—was not aimed directly at Sergeant Cleveland and was moving very slowly and was not accelerating when the Officers began shooting.”

The law here:

I’ll just quote this law straight from the case:

“Allegations of excessive force during an investigatory stop or arrest of a free citizen are examined under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures.”

“Determining whether a particular use of force was reasonable ‘requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.’”

“To assess the government interests, we evaluate a ‘range of factors’ that include ‘(1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others (3) whether he was actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight, and any other exigent circumstances that existed at the time of the arrest.’”

With this law, the main thing to decide is based off this law: “A suspect may pose a threat of serious physical harm ‘if there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm,’ or if the suspect threatens the officer or others with a weapon capable of inflicting such harm.’”

And that’s where the Court agrees with Plaintiff and disagrees with the Police. The law is “[a] moving vehicle can of course pose a threat of serious physical harm, but only if someone is at risk of being struck by it.” And the Courts “have consistently found use of deadly force to stop a slow-moving vehicle unreasonable when the officers could have easily stepped out of the vehicle’s path to avoid danger.”

The ultimate holding here:

The Court holds for this case that “a reasonable jury could conclude that the Officers used excessive force” and that were not protected by qualified immunity “because they ‘lacked an objectively reasonable basis to fear for [their] own safety, as [they] could simply have stepped back [or to the side] to avoid being injured.’” So the case continues through the Court system.

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    Eric Ganci, Esq.
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