9th Circ. Orders New Look at Damages in Police Killing

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In an unsigned, unpublished memorandum opinion, a Ninth Circuit panel directed a federal judge to hear evidence of the pain and suffering a 23-year-old man may have experienced before dying in a hail of police gunfire.

In 2009, Stephen Willis was removing a holstered gun and other belongings from the trunk of his car when police confronted him – an encounter that ended in Willis’ death. His family sued the city of Fresno, California, and three of its officers on claims of negligence and civil rights violations.

A federal judge cleared the police department of liability in the death in pretrial proceedings, but the Ninth Circuit overturned that ruling in 2013 and ordered a trial.

A jury subsequently found that Greg Catton, one of two police officers who shot Willis, had used excessive force and was partially negligent in the man’s death.

Willis’ parents were awarded $1.5 million in damages for the loss of their son’s love, comfort, companionship and care, but the amount was reduced because the jury also found that Willis had been 80 percent to blame for his own death.

In a second visit to the Ninth Circuit in late 2016, Fresno’s attorneys argued police had properly used lethal force on Willis, while the Willis family sought damages for pain and suffering which the lower court had denied entirely.

The seven-page ruling handed down Wednesday supported the judge’s decision to reject qualified immunity for Catton, finding no problems with the jury’s decision that the final shots of the encounter’s 41-round fusillade constituted excessive force.

“The jury could reasonably have concluded from the evidence that Willis was not reaching for his gun and that Officer Catton’s use of force was unreasonable,” the panel said.

“All reasonable officers would have known that using deadly force on an individual who poses no immediate threat to the officer or others violates the Fourth Amendment,” they said.

On remand, however, the judge must consider evidence of pain and suffering Willis may have suffered from those last shots, but any damages are to be limited the pain and suffering caused by those final shots.

Among other issues addressed by the ruling was the degree to which Willis was impaired by alcohol and marijuana.

“Evidence of Willis’ intoxication was relevant to the jury’s assessment of whether to believe the officers’ testimony that Willis disregarded their orders to drop his gun and instead aimed it at them,” the panel said.

But evidence of marijuana in his system should not have been put before the jury since no link was shown at trial between the drug and his behavior that night, they said.

The judge, which reduced the award of attorneys’ fees to the family’s counsel by 35 percent, must also revisit the reduction after ruling on any pain and suffering damages.

Circuit Judges Richard Clifton, Paul Watford and Michael Melloy, who sat by designation from the Eighth Circuit, made up the panel.

 

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