No Excessive Force in Traffic Stop Fatality

     (CN) – A police officer did not use excessive force when he shot a man in the head for trying to drive away with him in the car during a traffic stop, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez had drawn the suspicion of the Anaheim Police Department at 2 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2009, when swung his van into a gas station, cutting off a pair of officers in their squad car.
     After discovering that the van was once involved in a narcotics stop, Officers Daron Wyatt and Matthew Ellis followed the van out of the station and observed it weaving within its lane.
     After the officers initiated a stop, the 21-year-old Gonzalez allegedly reached for something while Wyatt and Ellis approached the van from opposite sides. Ellis said Gonzalez seemed to be hiding a plastic baggy in his right hand. When Gonzalez refused to open his right hand, Wyatt entered the van from the passenger side and punched him in the head and face. Gonzalez struggled and managed to shift the van into gear while Ellis hit him in head three times with a flashlight. Wyatt said that Gonzalez pushed the accelerator and slapped his hand away when he tried to stop him.
     The van moved forward about 50 feet and Wyatt pulled his gun and shot Gonzalez point blank in the head. Gonzalez died a short time later.
     Gonzalez’s family sued for excessive force, but a Los Angeles federal judge awarded the officers and others summary. A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed Monday.
     “The record taken as a whole does not support any inferences other than essentially what the officers claim: Wyatt was an unbuckled passenger in a rapidly accelerating van with an escaping and noncompliant suspect,” Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote for the majority in Pasadena. “Gonzalez’s flight could have killed or seriously injured Wyatt. This was not a case where Wyatt had time to deliberate and consider the most measured response; he testified that he tried to knock the vehicle’s gearshift out of gear and that he yelled at Gonzalez to stop. When these methods failed, further hesitation may have been fatal. Given the speed with which these events occurred, Wyatt was objectively reasonable in resorting to deadly force.”
     Judge Richard Clifton’s dissent said that “a glaring inconsistency in the story told by the police officers” should have precluded summary judgment in the case.
     The inconsistency, Clifton wrote, is over how fast the van was travelling before the fatal shot. Wyatt said that the van traveled about 50 feet in about 10 seconds, and that it was going about 50 miles per hour.
     “As plaintiffs have argued, and the majority opinion acknowledges, a vehicle that traveled fifty feet in ten seconds would have an average speed of only 3.4 miles per hour,” Clifton wrote. “Nobody should mistake 3.4 miles per hour for 50.”
     “If Wyatt was sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle going 3 to 4 miles per hour when he whipped out his gun and, without warning, shot Gonzalez dead, a reasonable jury might conclude that his actions were unreasonable,” Clifton added.

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