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Lawsuit over fatal police shooting of mentally ill man in Bay Area suburb headed for trial

A jury must decide if an officer from a wealthy San Francisco Bay Area suburb acted reasonably or used excessive force when he shot and killed a mentally ill Filipino man in 2018.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A police officer accused of using excessive deadly force on two mentally ill men in a 2.5 year span must face a civil jury trial over the 2018 fatal shooting of a Filipino man in a small town east of San Francisco, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Andrew Hall, a Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputy who serves as a police officer in the town of Danville, shot 33-year-old Laudemer Arboleda nine times on Nov. 3, 2018, as Arboleda slowly drove a silver Honda away from police cars that were chasing him.

In April, Hall was charged with manslaughter for the 2018 shooting, one month after he shot and killed another man who struggled with mental health problems — 33-year-old Tyrell Wilson — on March 11.  

Civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents the families of both men shot and killed by Hall in separate federal lawsuits, said Hall should not have been allowed to keep working as an officer after he fatally shot Arboleda in 2018.

“He should have been prosecuted a long time ago, and if so we wouldn’t have had the second killing,” Burris said in a phone interview. “He was a hothead.”

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg denied Hall’s motion for summary judgment in a civil suit seeking damages for wrongful death, excessive force and civil rights violations. The ruling means the case must proceed to a jury trial unless a settlement is reached before trial.

Burris said Arboleda’s mother, Jeanine Atienza, is seeking significant monetary damages for the “unnecessary” loss of her son’s life. Burris declined to specify how much money his client will seek at trial.

The November 2018 incident started at around 11 a.m. when police received calls about a suspicious person randomly knocking on doors on a quiet street in the wealthy Bay Area suburb of Danville. When police caught up with Arboleda, they said he ignored their commands, drove away and committed multiple traffic violations as they pursued him.

Police said Arboleda was trying to “run down” Hall when the shooting occurred, but a video shows Hall exiting his squad car and stepping into the path of Arboleda’s vehicle before unloading nine bullets at the driver.

An internal investigation by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office previously cleared Hall of any wrongdoing, finding he and his fellow officers did not violate any sheriff’s department policies. The sheriff's office has a contract to provide policing services for the town of Danville.

Arboleda’s family reported that his mental health was deteriorating in the years leading up to his death. He started putting duct tape on his head, wrapping himself in plastic, covering windows with cardboard, sprinkling salt to “ward off evil sprits” and writing strange messages to neighbors near his mother’s home in Newark, California, where he lived, according to a San Francisco Chronicle investigation.

In his 12-page ruling Wednesday, Seeborg concluded that too many factual disputes exist for the case to be decided purely based on law. Those disputes include the speed at which Arboleda was driving and the direction his wheels were pointing when Hall shot and killed him.

Seeborg found the case similar to one decided by the Ninth Circuit last year, Orn v. City of Tacoma. In that case, the Ninth Circuit found an officer who shot at a vehicle could have “avoided any risk of being struck by simply taking a step back.”

Hall acknowledged in a deposition that he was “able to back up and get out of the path of the car and avoid being hit” before he fired nine bullets at Arboleda’s Honda.

“While it is of course possible that Officer Hall’s shots changed the Honda’s course, it appears Officer Hall, like the officer in Orn, could have defused the immediacy of the threat by simply stepping back,” Seeborg wrote.

The judge also rejected Hall’s argument that he is entitled to qualified immunity under state and federal law. The question of qualified immunity hinges on whether a reasonable officer would clearly recognize the Hall's conduct as unlawful. Seeborg said he could not make that determination at this stage because there are disputed facts that must be resolved by a jury.

Burris said he does not think there is a basis for officer Hall to get qualified immunity in this case because his actions were blatantly unreasonable.

“If you look at the facts, the officer who shot and killed Mr. Arboleda, he did not have to do it,” Burris said. “He’s the one who put himself in jeopardy.”

Arboleda’s mother argues in her lawsuit that Hall created the dangerous situation by stepping toward Arboleda’s vehicle with his gun drawn as her son tried to slowly drive away between two police cars.

“He’s the one who ran up in a cowboy, overly aggressive way and put himself nearly in front of the car and started shooting at the car when he didn’t have to do that,” Burris said. “He could have stepped aside, moved to somewhere that was safe.”

Hall’s attorney, D. Cameron Baker of the Contra Costa County Office of the County Counsel, did not immediately return an email requesting comment Wednesday.

Follow Nicholas Iovino on Twitter.

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