A federal judge has ruled that a civil rights, wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a Fresno City College student who was fatally shot by two Fresno police officers three years ago can proceed to a jury trial.
In making his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd noted that Martin Figueroa, 27, was shot in the left armpit and three times in the back and had suffered dog bites to both of his arms.
Police say Figueroa was fatally shot after he threatened two officers with a knife inside a bedroom of his mother’s home on Clinton Avenue, just north of Fresno City College, during the early evening hours of May 20, 2014.
After the shooting, Figueroa’s family sued the city and officers Robert Alvarez and Mikal Clement for excessive force, negligence, battery, wrongful death, and infliction of emotional distress.
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The Figueroa lawsuit is one in a long string of civil rights lawsuits filed against the Fresno Police Department over allegations of excessive force and wrongful death. Since November, the city has settled two such lawsuits for nearly $2.9 million. At least four other lawsuits are pending.
Lawyers for Martin Figueroa’s family contend police fatally shot an unarmed Figueroa, who was alone in his mother’s home, while he was being restrained by a police dog.
Bruce Praet, an attorney for the city and the two officers, tried to get the Figueroa lawsuit dismissed through summary judgment, arguing that the fatal shooting was justified, given that Figueroa was armed with a steak knife.
But Drozd denied the motion for summary judgment, saying in his Feb. 10 ruling there is a legitimate dispute as to whether Figueroa wielded a knife.
San Francisco lawyers Arturo J. González, Alexandria Amezcua and Christopher Wiener, who represent the Figueroas, contend the officers shot an unarmed Figueroa while he was being restrained by a police dog. They also said when officers arrived, Figueroa was in the home alone and not posing a threat to anyone.
In court papers, the family’s lawyers say Figueroa’s fingerprints were not on the knife and laboratory test results show no conclusive proof that Figueroa even touched the knife.
“A reasonable jury could easily find that the absence of any DNA or fingerprints on a small steak knife found on the floor of a cluttered bedroom was strong evidence the knife had not been wielded by a violent perpetrator, but instead merely happened to be in the room,” Drozd’s ruling says.
Because Figueroa was shot four times, Drozd writes: “A rational jury could find that the force used by the officers was excessive even if the decedent had a knife in his hand.”
In addition, the judge said, there are other disputed facts, such as the amount of time police waited before entering the Figueroa home and whether police knew Figueroa’s criminal history before entering the home.
The Figueroa family’s lawyers contend that police acted with “deliberate indifference” by recklessly provoking a potential violent confrontation. In other words, by sending in a 60- to 65-pound dog, the defendants knew it would attack the 5-foot-8, 132-pound Figueroa.
The lawyer for the city said the fatal shooting was justified, given that Figueroa was armed with a steak knife and had methamphetamine in his body.
Police, however, contend the decision to enter the home was based on concerns that police calls were backing up, “rather than the exigency of the situation,” court records say. In his ruling, Drozd says a jury could conclude that “the decision to escalate the potentially volatile situation simply in order to be freed to attend other calls was a deliberate indifferent action by the officers that ‘shocks the conscience.’ ”
Police Chief Jerry Dyer and the City Attorney’s Office said in an email: “A motion for summary judgment is brought in a case to narrow the scope of the issues raised in the complaint prior to trial. The judge ruled there were facts in this case that needed to be determined by a jury.”
Dyer added: “We believe the officers involved in this matter acted with extreme patience. Additionally, we found the force used by officers to be objectively reasonable, within legal standards and department policy. We look forward to aggressively defending this matter in court.”
A trial date has not been scheduled, but the ruling gives details of the incident:
Fresno police were dispatched to the Figueroa home around 7 p.m. May 20, 2014, after Lizette Figueroa called 911 to say her brother, Martin, was high on drugs and acting “crazy.” (Court records say methamphetamine was later found in Figueroa’s body).
She also told police that when her brother gets high, he gets violent, and that she and her mother, Aurora Figueroa, were “frightened for our lives.”
Alvarez arrived within a few minutes of the 911 call. Officers Gerardo Grimaldo and Bernard Garcia provided backup.
According to police, Martin yelled and cursed at police. At some point, Clement arrived with a police dog and told Figueroa that if he refused to come out of the house, the dog would be sent in. Sgt. John Romo then formulated a plan to send the police dog on a long leash into the home. Lizette Figueroa provided a key to the officers at their request.
Shortly after releasing the dog, police entered the home at 7:38 p.m. and found Figueroa in a rear bedroom with the police dog biting his left hand, court records say. About one minute would pass before Figueroa was shot.
Alvarez and Clement contend Figueroa had a knife in his right hand. They ordered him to drop the knife.
A rational jury could find that the force used by the officers was excessive even if the decedent had a knife in his hand.
Judge Dale A. Drozd
According to the two officers, Figueroa did not drop the knife. “Instead, (he) raised it above his head, at which point, fearing for their safety, both officers shot him,” the ruling says.
The lawyers representing the Figueroa family, however, say he never held a knife. They said a photo of the crime scene shows the knife on the bedroom floor, partially covered by a flip-flop.
Court records indicate that Figueroa had a minor criminal record. In 2009, he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest and being a member of a street gang. In a plea agreement, he pleaded no contest to the gang charge and was sentenced to probation. He violated probation in June 2013 and spent some time in jail.
At the time of the shooting, Dyer said Figueroa had a history of violence. But Figueroa’s family said he was going to church regularly, attending Fresno City College to learn mechanics and staying out of trouble.