Cop Loses Immunity After Shooting, Headstomping Gravely-Injured Suspect

from the rollback dept

Court decisions stripping officers of immunity for civil liberties violations are still mostly an anomaly. But we’ll take what we can get. This immunity-stripping decision by the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court appears to have been aided by the police department’s own dashcam video, which helped dispel some of the “our word against yours” haze that clouds excessive force cases.

In this case, acts of violence followed several seizures (of the epileptic variety, rather than the law enforcement variety). From the decision [PDF]:

Connor Zion suffered several seizures. He then had a seemingly related episode where he bit his mother and cut her and his roommate with a kitchen knife. Police were called. Deputy Juan Lopez arrived at Zion’s apartment complex. As Lopez exited his police car, Zion ran at him and stabbed him in the arms. Deputy Michael Higgins drove up separately and witnessed the attack on Lopez.

This was then followed by more acts of violence. Some of it clearly excessive, according to the court.

What happened next is captured in two videos taken by cameras mounted on the dashboards of the two police cruisers. Zion is seen running toward the apartment complex. Lopez Video 2:58. Higgins shoots at him from about fifteen feet away. Higgins Video 3:25. Nine shots are heard and Zion falls to the ground. Lopez Video 2:54. Higgins then runs to where Zion has fallen and fires nine more rounds at Zion’s body from a distance of about four feet, emptying his weapon. Id. at 3:00–03. Zion curls up on his side. Id. Higgins pauses and walks in a circle. Id. at 3:05. Zion is still moving. Id. at 3:00–12. Higgins then takes a running start and stomps on Zion’s head three times. Id. at 3:11–20.

Here’s the video, courtesy of the Appeals Court.

This footage proves key to the Ninth’s decision. As it points out, Higgins’ statements don’t align with the events captured by the cruiser’s dashcam

Higgins testified that Zion was trying to get up. But we “may not simply accept what may be a self-serving account by the police officer.” Scott v. Henrich, 39 F.3d 912, 915 (9th Cir. 1994). This is especially so where there is contrary evidence. In the video, Zion shows no signs of getting up. Lopez Video 3:01.

The video shows Higgins shooting Zion several times from point-blank range, pausing a few moments before deciding to stomp Zion’s head three times. At all times, Zion is laying on the ground almost motionless (he raises his head once after the second salvo of shots).

As the court points out, law enforcement officers are allowed to use deadly force until the threatening situation has terminated. But that does not mean officers are allowed to deploy force until the person is “terminated.” Higgins appears to believe he’s entitled to maintain some sort of force continuum right up until EMS crews haul the dead body away. That’s where he’s wrong. Or at the very least, there’s at least two ways a jury might find him culpable for violating Zion’s rights.

Plaintiff doesn’t challenge Higgins’s initial nine-round volley, but does challenge the second volley (fired at close range while Zion was lying on the ground) and the headstomping. By the time of the second volley, Higgins had shot at Zion nine times at relatively close range and Zion had dropped to the ground. In the video, Zion appears to have been wounded and is making no threatening gestures. Lopez Video 3:04. While Higgins couldn’t be sure that Zion wasn’t bluffing or only temporarily subdued, Zion was lying on the ground and so was not in a position where he could easily harm anyone or flee. A reasonable jury could find that Zion was no longer an immediate threat, and that Higgins should have held his fire unless and until Zion showed signs of danger or flight. Or, a jury could find that the second round of bullets was justified, but not the head-stomping.


[T]erminating at threat doesn’t necessarily mean terminating the suspect. If the suspect is on the ground and appears wounded, he may no longer pose a threat; a reasonable officer would reassess the situation rather than continue shooting. This is particularly true when the suspect wields a knife rather than a firearm.

With that, the Ninth Circuit sends the case back to the district court, overturning its summary judgment in favor of Officer Higgins. It also points out the plaintiff is entitled to recover her costs for the appeal. And, importantly, it unseals the two videos it relied on to reach its conclusions, so the public can draw its own conclusions about the incident in question in light of the officer’s misleading statements.

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Comments on “Cop Loses Immunity After Shooting, Headstomping Gravely-Injured Suspect”

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pcdec says:

Re: Re:

District courts are simply a rubber stamp for the government. They rarely take our side even in some pretty obvious cases. They bank on the fact most people don’t have the money for a lawyer or the skill to bring an appeal to the county court.

If a judges decision is overturned it should count against them. After a certain number they should be permanently removed. That is the metric that shows how good a judge is so it should decide weather they remain on the job.

Honestly cops jobs should hinge on this too. If they can’t get convictions they shouldn’t be making arrests.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Divergence that is not actually qualified

Cop: I am allowed to do anything I wan’t in order to get home for dinner.

District Court: OK

Appeals Court: No your not, and to boot this appeal has to be paid for by the public, maybe or maybe not sorry for that last.

Where in the hell was the District Courts head at? Where in the hell was the cop’s head at? Why is this type of behavior continued to be allowed?

The answers come from where the supervisors and managers and therefore the trainers of the cops involved heads are at, as well as the District Court’s thinking, as well as the rest of the organizations that comprise ‘officialdom’ of the police estate.

Their purpose is not to kill and/or stomp the heads of anyone they suspect, but to bring them to the halls of justice where by the US Constitution they are considered innocent until proven guilty. Full stop. Innocent until PROVEN guilty by a court (and usually with a jury of the defendants peers), and a court that does not take the police at their word but requires evidence, that at least in theory, requires more than the officers word.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Divergence that is not actually qualified

It’s especially astounding when you consider that police don’t have the right to go home to dinner at the end of their shift because they have badges, but because everyone has that right.

But if a non-cop did even a tenth of the things cops routinely get away with using that excuse, that non-cop would be serving a 20 years to life prison sentence, or possibly even awaiting execution on death row.

Tin-Foil-Hat says:

Let Me Guess

There’s such a chasm between the competence and professionalism of police forces from state to state and city to city. California stands out in recent memory as one of the worst for brutality and incompetence. Yes, they get away with it but what about self-respect? Stomping someone after emptying your gun into them is pretty cold.

Rekrul says:

While reading the court document sheds more light on the story, the Techfirt article fails to mention who was bringing the lawsuit and if the suspect lived or died. It talks about the court decision, but mostly glosses over the specifics of the case itself.

Also, for some reason, the right edge of the text is cut off by the sidebar. Probably the video messing up the formatting.

Mononymous Tim (profile) says:

Zion is seen running toward the apartment complex. Lopez Video 2:58. Higgins shoots at him from about fifteen feet away. Higgins Video 3:25. Nine shots are heard and Zion falls to the ground. Lopez Video 2:54.

Plaintiff doesn’t challenge Higgins’s initial nine-round volley

Why not? Does it really take NINE shots to incapacitate someone? Seems more like a cowardly "I’ll kill you for that!" move. And the rest of his behavior, including the lies, proves it.

Will B. says:

Re: Re: Mononymous Tim

This fundamentally fails to inderstand proper gun training. Civilians and cops both are trained to fire until the threat is eliminated; usually by the person going down. A single shot, or two, won’t stop someone hopped up on adrenaline even assuming you hit – which even the best shooters guarentee.
Rather than this argument, I would focus on the other factors – the shots into him on the ground amd the headstomps, which seem far more like sociopathic aggression. The number of rounds fired in the initial volley seems perfectly in line with typical firearms training.

carlb (profile) says:

Re: dial 911 and die.

This is why a “unified” 9-1-1 or 1-1-2 number as a means to summon assistance in a medical emergency is a really bad idea and the publication of separate emergency numbers to summon an ambulance should never have been ended. Dialing 9-1-1 all too often rings directly to the nearest police station.

The patient in a medical emergency has immigration issues? By calling this into police, you’ve just handed them an enforcement opportunity. The patient in a medical emergency has overdosed on street drugs? Again, by calling this into police, you’ve just handed them an enforcement opportunity. And then there’s mental illness. The few cops with the skill to “talk down” someone self-destructive or suicidal are more than made up for by the many who are trigger-happy and eager to (at least figuratively) bring a gun to a knife fight, escalating a small problem into a larger one – or even into a fatality. There are also adverse consequences for medical privacy and secrecy; anything called into 9-1-1 could well end up on a police database and be passed on to foreign governments or come up on a background check, even years later.

An epileptic seizure is a medical emergency, not a police matter. For that matter, if 9-1-1 is the only emergency number still published in local directory and it calls the police station, then overdoses might not be reported in a timely fashion or might not be called in at all – after all, the consequence of reporting those medical emergencies is a prison sentence. Thank you 9-1-1.

Perhaps we need to go back to posting separate seven-digit local numbers for “cops”, “ambulance”, “fire brigade” on every telephone handset so that medical calls don’t go to the police station by default. For public safety, of course.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: dial 911 and die.

Sorry, but are you fucking high?

A guy bits his mom, stabs his mom, stabs his roommate and then runs outside and stabs the responding cop and you say it is not a police matter?

Hahahahahahahaha, you are a retard. My daughter is an EMT, you think I want her walking up to this fuckhead? You want to walk up to this guy?

Yeah, talk this guy down, then it happens again and someone is dead. You want that on your head?

David says:

Government employee.

I mean, 18 bullets to incapacitate an epileptic with a knife, then stomp on his head in the presence of multiple witnesses and running dash cams?

You can’t become a career criminal in the private sector with that sort of incompetence and bone-headedness. If you nevertheless want to pursue a career in crime, you need to get a job in government. And even then, it might not work forever.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m pretty sure society would be much better off without someone so eager to play ‘how many rounds can a body hold?’ and ‘let’s see how much fun bouncing someone’s head against the pavement with my boot is’, especially given their position and the legal authority they are granted.

Someone who thinks either of those acts is acceptable is not the sort of person who has any business in a job where a gun is part of the uniform, and should probably be kept away from society in general for the public’s safety as a clearly dangerous individual.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Someone who thinks either of those acts is acceptable is not the sort of person who has any business in a job where a gun is part of the uniform, and should probably be kept away from society in general for the public’s safety as a clearly dangerous individual.

Judge: In fact, if I could, I would put you in a place where you would be removed from the general public. Perhaps locked in a big, secure building with other dangerous people for a pre-determined period of time, based on the nature and degree of your offense. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no such place exists. So, I have no choice but to set you free.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Not exactly helping your case there(and in fact you’re just making it worse). The job of the police is not ‘take[ing] out trash’, it’s enforcing the law. Investigating potential violations, making arrests when warranted for the legal system to deal with, and in cases where force is justified such as the presence of a real threat to life to use using just enough to eliminate the threat(note I said ‘threat’ and not ‘person’).

‘Breaking in the new shoes with someone’s head‘ is not in the job description, and again, anyone who thinks that is acceptable behavior has no business being in that line of work or being around others in general, as they are clearly a threat on their own.

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