SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday cleared the way for a jury trial in a wrongful death lawsuit against Stockton, California, police officers who shot and killed a black teenager following a high-speed chase in 2010.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. denied the three officers’ motions for summary judgment, citing inconsistencies in their accounts of the fatal shooting of 16-year-old James Rivera Jr.
After Rivera crashed a minivan into a house, Stockton Police officers Eric Azarvand, Gregory Dunn and San Joaquin County Sheriff’s deputy John Nesbitt fired 29 rounds at the teenager while he was still in the van. The officers claimed Rivera was attempting to back the van into them and that they fired out of fear for their lives.
In a 12-page ruling, England said the officers’ testimonies differed and that the plaintiffs raise reasonable doubt as to whether it was possible for the decedent to even back the dislodged van out of the garage.
“These and other inconsistencies in the record preclude summary judgment. Evaluating the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the officers watched the van spin its tires as it became clear that it was unable to move, and then fired 29 rounds at Rivera,” England wrote.
The lawsuit, filed by Rivera’s parents in the Eastern District of California, claims the van was inoperable after officers intentionally collided with it and caused it to swerve into a garage. The parents claim the officers gave each other “high-fives” after they unloaded nearly 30 rounds into the back of the van and killed the teenager.
Rivera’s parents accuse the officers of excessive force and 14th Amendment violations. They seek $10 million in damages.
Their attorney Benjamin Nisenbaum said the threat of the minivan was negated because the front wheels were off the ground. He says the officers overreacted following the crash, showing a “lack of self-discipline.”
“There’s no way the van could move,” Nisenbaum, with John Burris Law in Oakland, said. “The officers killed a young man who had his whole life ahead of him and still time to turn things around.”
The police department initially said 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.
England ruled in 2015 that the plaintiffs cannot pursue their Monell claim against the city of Stockton and San Joaquin County, because there is no indication their son’s death was the result of an official policy.
Nisenbaum said there are no settlement talks with the officers and that he anticipates a jury trial.
“A fair-minded jury will see it the way we do; the van was stuck and not going anywhere,” Nisenbaum said. He added it was “impossible to put a dollar amount on Rivera’s mother’s grief.”
In his ruling, England notes that tire tracks found under the van’s rear wheels may back up plaintiffs’ claims that the van was incapacitated and no threat to the pursuing officers.
“This physical evidence lends credence to plaintiffs’ view of the encounter: the officers watched for up to 30 seconds as it became apparent the van could not dislodge itself and then opened fire,” England wrote.