An Orange County Superior Court jury Thursday rejected claims of negligence and excessive force in a lawsuit stemming from a fatal officer-involved shooting in Anaheim involving the city’s public information officer for police.
The jury deliberated for about an hour before reaching a 10-2 verdict against negligence and excessive force in the lawsuit brought by the family of Adolf Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez, who was fatally shot by Anaheim Sgt. Daron Wyatt, now the city’s police and fire public information officer.
“While we never want to be in court when someone has lost their life, we welcome the decision,” said Lauren Gold, a spokeswoman for the city of Anaheim. “This was a dangerous and unthinkable situation in which our officer had to act to protect his own life and the community.
“We thank the jury for their consideration of this case, which shows the difficult situations our officers face. Our thoughts go out to the family and all who were impacted by this incident, and we hope this brings some closure.”
Efforts to reach the Gonzalez family’s attorney, Dale Galipo, were not immediately successful.
The shooting happened on Sept. 25, 2009, but has taken this long to get before a jury because it has been in and out of federal and state courts and through multiple appeals.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal in September 2017 ordered a new trial in Orange County Superior Court.
Gonzalez was driving a Mazda MPV minivan near Santa Ana and Bond streets in Anaheim when he was pulled over by Wyatt and Officer Matthew Ellis.
Ellis put Gonzalez in a “carotid hold” on the driver’s side as Wyatt struck him in the arms and head with a flashlight before punching him in the face the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleged, according to the appellate court ruling. Wyatt then got into the minivan and shot Gonzalez in the head, according to the ruling.
According to Wyatt’s and Ellis’ testimony, only Ellis hit Gonzalez in the head with a flashlight.
The officers have said in depositions that it appeared Gonzalez had something in his hand, and that Wyatt, who feared for his safety, opened fire after Gonzalez hit the gas with the officer in the car, according to one of Gonzalez’s attorneys, Melanie T. Parlow, who disputed those claims.
Gonzalez had told his girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child, that he had plans to turn himself in to police that night because he knew he was wanted on a bench warrant, Partow said. Gonzalez was striving for a “clean slate” after his child was born, she added.
Gonzalez had taken the minivan out that night to pick up some food for them and get gas for the vehicle before surrendering to police, Partow said.
While he was driving around he found himself at the same turn signal as Wyatt and Ellis, which triggered the series of events leading to his death, Partow said. As they turned left in adjoining lanes, the officers have said they felt he cut them off to drive into the gas station, Partow said.
Nevertheless, the officers continued on their way to a welfare check call and when they were done returned to the gas station where Gonzalez was still filling up the tank, Partow said. The officers then began following him and claimed they pulled him over for “weaving” within his lane, Partow said.
Gonzalez was unarmed, Partow said.
The city’s attorneys argued that Gonzalez made an illegal left turn and nearly collided with a patrol car at Stage College Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue. Wyatt and Ellis suspected he was impaired, but dispatchers sent them on a higher-priority call.
Later, when the officers encountered Gonzalez again they pulled him over and saw him appear to be reaching down, the city’s attorneys argued. Gonzalez, they said, ignored commands to turn off the vehicle and then appeared to be swallowing pills to destroy drug-possession evidence.
As Ellis reached in to try to stop Gonzalez, Wyatt, who approached from the passenger side of the vehicle and then struck Gonzalez on his elbow three times to get him to comply, the city’s attorneys argued.
Wyatt then made his way into the minivan and punched the suspect in the head to get him to comply and Ellis slammed a flashlight on the back of Gonzalez’s head, according to the officers’ account.
When Gonzalez put the minivan into drive with Wyatt in the passenger seat, Ellis stepped back and the passenger door closed. Gonzalez ignored commands to stop and stymied Wyatt’s attempts to shut off the vehicle, the city argued.
Wyatt then opened fire, shooting Gonzalez once in the head before taking control of the wheel and stopping the minivan.
The legal issues in the case arose after a federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed the case against the city, but did not throw out the state claims, prompting the attorneys to file suit in Orange County Superior Court.
The city of Anaheim then had the lawsuit thrown out in state court, prompting an appeal.
So there were two appeals — one in federal court, and the other in state courts — brewing at the same time. After a panel of federal justices in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal dumped the federal case, the state appellate justices did the same.
Then, in a rare move, the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal overturned the panel’s opinion.