SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Two police officers who shot an immigrant in the back and killed him last year can remain silent in a civil lawsuit until the district attorney decides whether to press murder charges, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
San Francisco Police Department officers Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli shot and killed 20-year-old Guatemalan native Amilcar Perez Lopez in the city's Mission District on the night of Feb. 26, 2015.
Perez Lopez was walking to his apartment that night when he was confronted by a man who began following and taunting him, his family says.
Police say Perez Lopez threatened the man with a knife before he was confronted by two plainclothes officers, one of whom placed him in a "bearhug" to restrain him.
The young man "wriggled free" from the officer and ran a few feet before both officers shot and killed him, according to the family.
After the shooting, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told the media Perez Lopez "lunged at the officers with a knife overhead," but an autopsy later revealed the man was shot five times in the back and once in the back of his head.
Two eyewitnesses say the officers shot Perez Lopez while he was running away from them, according to the family.
The family sued the two officers, Suhr and the city of San Francisco for wrongful death and civil rights violations in April 2015.
In an April 26 ruling, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam found the delay in deciding whether or not to press charges against the officers is denying the family and the public the right to a speedy trial.
"The court finds that the public has a strong interest in resolving the civil litigation in light of the fact that no criminal litigation is pending," Gilliam wrote in his 14-page ruling.
The judge authorized the family to start obtaining investigative files from the police and district attorney's office and to interview witnesses, but he also barred the family from seeking any direct testimony from the two accused officers.
With potential murder charges looming, the officers would likely feel compelled to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination, an act that could unfairly prejudice them at trial, the judge ruled.
"We can't address any discovery directly to the officers, but we can address discovery to the city," the family's attorney Arnoldo Casillas said. "We can get the officers' statements to investigators, the 911 calls, videos, photographs, witness statements, and videos of the police officers themselves and the witnesses."
The judge also granted the city's motion to separate the trial into two phases — first deciding whether the officers violated Perez Lopez's civil rights and then determining in a second phase whether the city is liable for the alleged misconduct.
Because the suit is bifurcated, the plaintiffs may not seek evidence on the police department's alleged systemic racism or failure to adequately train and supervise officers until the first phase is complete.
Though he disagrees with the judge's ruling and maintains that systemic issues are inseparably tied to the shooting, Casillas said he still plans to expose racial bias and other systemwide problems plaguing the San Francisco Police Department.
In just over two years, the SFPD has come under fire for the police shooting deaths of three other minority men — Alex Nieto, Mario Lopez and Luis Gongora — along with two scandals over racist text messages sent by officers.
"Whether or not we got permission from the judge to proceed with the systematic issues now, it doesn't mean we're not going to," Casillas said. "Eventually, we will soon be touching on the systematic issues. That's not something we're going to forget, and it's actually something very important to the family."
If District Attorney George Gascon decides to prosecute the two officers for murder, that would further delay the civil suit. But Casillas said he wouldn't mind waiting if the DA sees fit to hold those officers accountable for their actions.
"If there was ever a police shooting that required prosecution, it's this one," Casillas said. "You have them shooting somebody as they're running away posing no threat to anybody. This is the case, and I'm hopeful and optimistic that Gascon is going to make the right decision."
Alex Bastion of the District Attorney's Office did not respond to phone and email requests on Tuesday and Wednesday regarding the status of the investigation or when a prosecution decision is expected.
"We're confident the evidence will demonstrate this was a justified shooting as we already argued in our pleadings," San Francisco City Attorney's Office spokesman Matt Dorsey said. "Police officers acted appropriately and legally to protect not only themselves but also the intended victim of Mr. Perez Lopez's attack."
In an answer to the family's lawsuit filed in August last year, the city said the plainclothes officers who shot Perez Lopez repeatedly identified themselves as police officers.
The city also says Perez Lopez was intoxicated with a blood-alcohol content of .19 percent when the incident took place and that he posed a threat to the officers and the man who taunted him when he was shot and killed.
The judge will reassess whether to extend the ban on seeking direct testimony from Tiffe and Reboli on June 1.
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