SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Santa Clara County and one of its officers must face wrongful death claims from the family of an elderly woman who was shot and killed by the officer during a domestic dispute.
However, U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman ruled Wednesday that the Fourth Amendment claims brought by the family of Andrea Naharro were not sufficient to survive the county's summary judgment motion.
"The government had an extremely strong interest in the use of deadly force given the immediate threat that Naharro posed to the safety of [Deputy Jennifer] Galan and the other deputies," Freeman wrote. "The undisputed evidence establishes that Galan had probable cause to believe that her life was in danger at the moment she fired on Naharro."
The dispute stems from the fatal shooting Naharro, then 61, at her San Jose apartment in November 2014.
Previous to officers' arrival, Naharro had been acting eratically, appearing confused and unable to recognize neighbors with whom she had a long-standing and good relationship. Naharro got into a loud argument with her husband, smashing his guitar at one point, before the husband fled the scene in his car.
At some point, a neighbor who had locked the door and put furniture against it as a barricade called the Sheriff's Office and asked for officers to intervene. The dispatcher inexplicably relayed that a burglary was in progress at the scene and that a woman would be outside the apartment yelling.
When officers arrived they spotted Naharro, who was still acting with hostility and holding a kitchen knife in one hand and the battered guitar in the other.
The officers say they announced themselves as law enforcement, but an eyewitness account provided by a neighbor disputes that. Regardless, the officers ordered Naharro to drop the knife at least twice.
Instead, Naharro advanced toward the three officers, one of which ducked around the cruiser and the other two backed up the driveway. Galan backed up until the end of the driveway, at which point - feeling trapped - she fired on Naharro, hitting her in the face, chest and abdomen.
Naharro died as a result of the gunshot wounds.
Steven and Stacey Barnard sued the officers and the county, claiming their mother's Fourth Amendment constitutional rights against against unreasonable search and seizures were violated.
But Freeman ruled that Galan was eligible for qualified immunity. Going even further, she said when considering undisputed evidence, Galan reasonably feared for her life and therefore did not violate Naharro's rights.
"Galan, like others who interacted with Naharro earlier in the evening, reasonably feared for her safety," Freeman wrote.
Nevertheless, she did allow negligence claims of wrongful death to go forward.
Roger Clark, an expert witness for the plaintiffs who focuses on police procedures, said Galan violated several aspects of standard police protocol on the night in question.
Specifically, Galan failed to de-escalate the situation, didn't use adequate lighting and failed to take the time and distance necessary to pursue less lethal means of subduing the irate elderly woman, Clark told the court.
The defense had its own witness testify that Galan acted in perfect conformity with accepted police standards.
Freeman said the discrepancy of opinion among the experts constitutes a triable issue of fact on the negligence claim.
"The parties have presented the court with a classic "battle of experts" which creates disputed facts as to essential elements of plaintiffs' wrongful death claim," Freeman wrote.
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