HOUSTON (CN) — A Brownsville, Texas policeman fired four shots into an SUV during a late-night traffic stop, killing the driver as he tried to flee. Was the shooting justified? A Fifth Circuit panel took up the question Tuesday.
Jaime Gomez, then 23, stole three cases of Bud Light from a convenience store around 2 a.m. on July 17, 2015 and ran to Jose Ramon Rodriguez's waiting SUV. Brownsville police Officer Rolando Trujillo Jr. responded to the theft report. After talking to the store clerk, he pulled Rodriguez over minutes after the heist.
Trujillo told the Texas Rangers in a filmed statement that as he approached the vehicle, he could not see through its tinted windows, so he shined his flashlight into it. Gomez jumped out and ran.
Trujillo told the Rangers that he opened Rodriguez’s driver’s side door and asked him what had happened back there. “Rodriguez said, ‘No, yo no sé nada,” Trujillo said in the voluntary statement published by The Brownsville Herald, taken from the video.
According to the case record, Rodriguez then closed his door and reached his right hand down to the center console and tried to shift the vehicle into drive. But he put it in neutral and revved the engine for an instant.
Dashcam footage from Trujillo’s patrol car shows him fire four shots the moment the vehicle starts moving forward.
Two bullets hit Rodriguez in the side. He was pronounced dead an hour later. He was 24.
No weapons were found in the car, only a large gray-and-red screwdriver near the driver’s seat. But Trujillo told the Texas Rangers he saw Rodriguez reach his right hand into the center console and raise a long gray object.
“It was at this moment that I believed that Rodriguez was about to use a deadly weapon against me,” said Trujillo, then 23, fighting back tears as he recounted the shooting for the Texas Rangers.
A Cameron County grand jury declined to charge Trujillo.
Rodriguez was one of 995 people shot to death by police in the United States in 2015, 100 of them in Texas, according to a Washington Post database. His family sued Trujillo in Brownsville Federal Court in October 2016, alleging excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.
“Officer Trujillo cannot explain how Mr. Rodriguez’s hand can be in two places at once: thrusting a weapon at Officer Trujillo while using the same hand to move the gearshift into the drive gear,” the family states in their second amended complaint.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen allowed the excessive force claim to proceed in December 2017, denying Trujillo’s request for qualified immunity, which shields police from civil liability for all but the most egregious shootings.