SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge Tuesday lifted an almost two-year stay in a lawsuit against two officers who shot a 20-year-old immigrant in the back, citing unreasonably long delay in a criminal investigation of the officers.
U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam found delaying the case further would impede the immigrant’s family’s right to speedy trial and unjustifiably postpone the resolution of a case “in which the public has a strong interest.”
San Francisco police Officers Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli shot and killed 20-year-old Guatemalan native Amilcar Perez Lopez in the Mission District on the night of Feb. 26, 2015.
It was one in a string of high-profile police shootings that shook public confidence in the city’s law enforcement, leading to protests, calls for reform and federal review of the San Francisco police.
After the shooting, then-Police Chief Greg Suhr told reporters that Perez “lunged at the officers with a knife overhead,” but an autopsy revealed he was shot five times in the back and once in the back of his head.
The city now claims Perez was lunging at another victim with the knife when he was shot.
Perez’s parents sued the city in April 2015, claiming two eyewitnesses saw the officers shoot their son in the back as he ran away, and that the autopsy provides “unequivocal physical evidence” to support that.
In April 2016, Gilliam granted a request to separate the trial into two phases — first to decide whether the officers violated Perez’s civil rights and then to determine whether the city is liable.
In that same April 2016 ruling, Gilliam authorized the Perez family to obtain investigative files from the police and interview witnesses, but he barred the family from seeking direct testimony from the two accused officers.
Gilliam found the officers would likely be compelled to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent due to the criminal investigation, which could prejudice them at trial.
But on Tuesday, nearly a year later, Gilliam found further delay in seeking testimony from the officers no longer justified because “the court cannot predict with any certainty when the district attorney will make a charging decision in the criminal investigation.”
A civil grand jury report issued last year faulted the city for lack of timeliness and transparency in its process of deciding whether to prosecute officers who shoot civilians.
Responding to calls for reform, the city pledged $1.9 million to launch an independent bureau in the District Attorney’s Office, specifically tasked with investigating police shootings, police misconduct and potentially wrongful convictions.
Although the District Attorney’s Office has hired most of that new division’s 14-member team, it has not yet taken charge of investigating police shootings, according to its spokesman Max Szabo. That’s because the city is completing details on how the investigations will be handled, and it has already received pushback from the police officers’ union.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association sent a letter to the city’s Human Resources Department this year saying it believes a memorandum of understanding on the new investigation procedures requires negotiation, according to Susan Gard, chief of policy for the city’s HR Department.
Gard said the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office were to meet later this week to potentially complete the agreement on police shooting investigations.
As the city works out those new procedures, long delays in police shooting probes put more pressure on courts to move forward with civil litigation without a charging decision from prosecutors, according to Arnoldo Casillas, attorney for Perez’s parents.
“The judge has to do a weighing of the factors that relate to a stay, weighing the interests of the officers against the interests of Amilcar’s parents,” Casillas said. “After this long, long delay, the equities began to tilt in favor of Amilcar’s parents. Eventually, he thought it was time to lift the stay.”
If the DA’s office were to file charges against the officers who shot Perez, Casillas said, it would cause further delays. But for now, Casillas said, the plaintiffs are moving full steam ahead toward a jury trial scheduled for March 2018.
“At this point, we are moving ahead like gangbusters,” Casillas said. “We’ve been waiting for this to happen.”
Szabo, with the DA’s office, said a decision on whether to prosecute Tiffe and Reboli for the shooting is expected within weeks.
Casillas said he is not optimistic the city will prosecute the officers who shot his clients’ son, but that documents and statements obtained through the investigation could serve as potent pieces of evidence in the civil lawsuit.
The autopsy serves as undisputed proof that the officers shot Perez in the back, Casillas said.
“There’s no doubt that he was shot in the back,” Casillas said. “The question is, can they justify shooting him in the back? We’re going to leave that to a jury to decide.”
A spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon, but a city attorney spokesman said in April last year that the city was “confident the evidence will demonstrate this was a justified shooting” and that “police officers acted appropriately and legally to protect not only themselves but also the intended victim of Mr. Perez Lopez’s attack.”
Gilliam set deadlines for non-expert discovery to be completed by June 30 and expert discovery to be completed by Sept. 15.
Trial has been set for March 26, 2018.