DEA Raked Over Coals for Killing Honor Student
LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge awarded $3 million to the parents of an 18-year-old honor student shot and killed by a plainclothes DEA agent in a parking lot.
Zachary Champommier had just graduated from a Granada Hills, Calif., charter school in 2010 when he made plans to meet a new friend in a strip mall parking lot. He arrived to find the friend, Douglas Ryan Oeters, being detained at gunpoint by officers from a multiagency drug enforcement task force who were using the parking lot to debrief after serving a search warrant.
Members of the task force - which included DEA agents, an IRS agent, two LA County Sheriff's deputies and an LAPD officer - drove unmarked cars and had removed their identifying clothing and badges. A civilian witness to the shooting described the officers as "bikers," according to U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald's ruling.
Champommier drove toward the officers detaining Oeters and struck the only officer who had drawn his gun and was pointing it at Oeters. That deputy testified that as he vaulted himself onto the hood, he saw a panicked Champommier struggling to put the car into gear.
The deputy slid off the hood without falling, stumbling or suffering any injury. Investigators did not find fingerprints, dents, scratches, scuffs or marks to the hood of Champommier's car.
DEA Special Agent Peter LoPresti nevertheless fired his gun into the driver's side window as the car drove past.
The bullet entered Champommier's left arm, passed through his lungs, severed his aorta and exited his right side. He died at the scene.
In his ruling, the judge took LoPresti to task for violating core law-enforcement standards in shooting at Champommier's vehicle in the first place.
"Special Agent LoPresti testified that he fired the first shot to stop a perceived attack on [the deputy]," Fitzgerald wrote. "He testified that he did not perceive any danger to other officers, himself or civilians in the parking lot - in fact, Special Agent LoPresti was entirely unaware of his colleagues' locations when he discharged his weapon. Special Agent LoPresti further testified that he would not have shot at all had the deputy been off the hood of the vehicle."
The judge continued: "Nor do standard police practices support the automatic use of deadly force even in the case of the use of a vehicle as an assaultive weapon. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department maintains a policy that states the use of a firearm against a moving motor vehicle is almost always ineffective and that of an assaultive motor vehicle does not presumptively justify the use of deadly force."
Fitzgerald noted that the policy is typical for most law-enforcement agencies. He also rejected the government's contention that Champommier was traveling at over 20 miles per hour when he hit the deputy - finding the impact speed less than 10 miles per hour instead. The government also failed to support its theory that the young man intended to kill the deputy.
"The goal of the government was to show that Champommier intentionally tried to run down the deputy and posed a threat to anyone in the parking lot," Fitzgerald wrote. "Implicit even in the government's contentions is that Champommier did so only because he believed that Oeters was threatened by armed thugs. Ultimately, the issue of Champommier's intentions is largely irrelevant to this court's ruling. Nonetheless, certain findings are appropriate because they do relate to the reasonableness of Special Agent LoPresti's decision to shoot."
The judge continued: "The court finds that Champommier could not have reasonably known that the police officers were, in fact, police officers. The court finds that Champommier did not intend to kill the deputy. If Champommier had accelerated from where the Toyota Corolla was first observed, the speed would have been uch greater. Champommier had a problem with the manual transmission, but he could have floored the gas pedal, ignored the clutch and 'red-lined' the transmission. Had he done so, the deputy would be dead or very seriously injured. As even the government's expert noted, the evidence is consistent with an attempt to draw attention or scare the officers, presumably to distract them from Oeters."
Although Fitzgerald found the shooting to be a mistake and "reactive, not protective," he stopped short of finding the law enforcement agencies negligent for holding their debriefing in a crowded parking lot.
"It could be argued that the facts considered in assessing plaintiffs' battery claim would also support a finding of liability for negligence, but plaintiffs' inclusion of the negligence claim was specifically targeted at the officers' pre-shooting tactical decision to meet in the parking lot ('The task force's meeting in a busy public parking lot short after nine o'clock on a summer Thursday evening, in plain clothes and with plain cars, unreasonably created a dangerous condition. The assault and shooting of Zachary arose from the chaos these federal agents negligently created,')" Fitzgerald wrote, citing the final pretrial conference order.
"Given the uncertainty of California law at the time of the final pretrial conference order, it is understandably that plaintiffs' counsel directed their negligence claim at pre-shooting conduct, divorced from Special Agent LoPresti's use of deadly force," the 43-page opinion states. "But that is no longer appropriate in light of Hayes [v. County of San Diego] unless the pre-shooting tactics or decisions themselves resulted in independent injury. Instead, because a single injury is alleged, the officers' decision to debrief in the parking lot 'is only relevant here to the extent that it shows, as part of the totality of circumstances, that the shooting itself was negligent. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to award the same damages under both of plaintiffs' claims."