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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Killer Cops, but not City, Still on the Hook

SACRAMENTO (CN) - Parents of a black teenager who was shot to death by Stockton police five years ago can continue with a portion of their $10 million lawsuit against the officers, a federal judge ruled.

James Rivera Jr. was 16 years old when was shot to death on July 22, 2010 by Stockton police Officers Eric Azarvand and Gregory Dunn and San Joaquin County sheriff's Officer John Nesbitt.

Police saw Rivera driving what they suspected was a stolen van, chased him and intentionally collided with the van, causing it to jump a curb and drive across the property of a private residence, according to the complaint filed by Rivera's parents, James Rivera Sr. and Dionne Smith-Downs.

The officers rammed the van again, causing the teenager to lose control and knock down two metal mailbox clusters before crashing into the garage wall of a triplex building. The van "was almost completely lodged in the garage, such that only two feet of the rear of the van protruded from the garage," the parents say in their March 20, 2012 federal lawsuit.

The van's engine had stopped, the tires were not moving and the rear lights were not illuminated, according to the complaint. Officers surrounded the van and told Rivera to get out two or three times, but did not hear a response, his parents say.

The officers "then immediately opened fire on decedent James Rivera, Jr. and the vehicle, firing 12-20 rounds at decedent while he was still seated behind the wheel of the van and still within the interior of the garage and while he did not pose any imminent threat to the lives or safety of any person, as decedent and the vehicle were stuck inside of the garage and the vehicle was obviously incapacitated and inoperable," Rivera's parents say.

After extracting the body from the wreck, the officers "were observed laughing loudly and giving each other 'high-fives' in congratulating one another," his parents say.

According to contemporary news reports, Stockton police said the minivan was moving backward toward the officers, which caused them to fear for their lives and fire at the back window.

The police department said at the time that Rivera was an escapee from San Joaquin County Juvenile Hall, where he had been facing felony charges. After he escaped, he was identified as the suspect in several additional felonies, including armed robbery, police said.

Rivera's parents have held numerous protests and traveled throughout the state to join other demonstrations protesting police brutality.

In their civil complaint, they seek $10 million for civil rights allegations. They have filed five amended complaints.

U.S. District Judge Morrison England ruled last week that Rivera mother and father cannot pursue their Monell claim against Stockton and San Joaquin County, because there is no indication that their son's death was the result of an official policy.

The parents' allegations do not constitute a "widespread practice" of misconduct in the police or sheriff's departments, England said.

Rivera's parents cite a 2014 incident in which Stockton police officers allegedly shot and killed a hostage they knew was inside a vehicle with bank robbery suspects. They say this shows that "there is a policy problem at the city when it comes to firing at vehicles."

But the judge found that "two events do not amount to a 'pattern of similar incidents' or otherwise establish an informal official policy."

But England found that the parents sufficiently stated a Section 1983 claim for deprivation of familial association under the Fourteenth Amendment.

"Construing the factual allegations in the FAC [Fifth Amended Complain] in the light most favorable to plaintiffs - specifically, that defendants shot an unconscious or incapacitated 16-year-old because he did not comply or respond to orders to exit a van he was suspected of stealing - defendants acted with a purpose to harm unrelated to legitimate law enforcement objectives when they killed decedent," England wrote.

Although the sheriff's department said that Rivera's parents have not alleged that their son was unarmed, the teenager's "possession of a firearm is not necessarily inconsistent with defendants' alleged purpose to harm," England found.

Attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

England gave the three officer defendants 14 days to file an answer to the fifth amended complaint.

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