The family of a migrant farmworker shot and killed by Fresno police last year served a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and police department Tuesday afternoon.
Whittier-based attorney James P. Segall-Gutierrez filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno on behalf of Miguel Moreno Torrez’s minor daughter, his wife Deibi Ontiveros and mother Maria Carrillo.
The Torrez family seeks unquantified damages based on nine counts, including wrongful death, unreasonable use of force and negligence. They want a jury trial.
On June 11, 2014, Miguel Moreno Torrez, 22, got into an argument at his home in southwest Fresno with his brother, Jose Antonio Torrez. Their roommate called 911 and police arrived.
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Officers said Torrez had a knife and that they gave verbal commands to surrender as Torrez stood in front of his home.
According to the lawsuit, the brothers were outside on the front porch at the time, visible by other residents and witnesses. Some witnesses said one of the brothers possibly had a knife, while others said neither brother had a knife and that they were only yelling, pushing and fist-fighting.
The lawsuit says Miguel Moreno Torrez did not speak English because he had arrived recently from Mexico to work, and so did not understand the officers’ commands. Segall-Gutierrez said Miguel Moreno Torrez had his hands in the air or was raising his hands in shock as he heard the unintelligible commands.
Deputy Police Chief Robert Nevarez said the two officers who responded to the scene pointed guns at Migel Moreno Torrez and yelled for him to drop the knife.
“That’s universal language, I would think,” he said. “If you’re in possession of a deadly weapon and a police officer yells at you to drop the weapon, that’s pretty clear.”
Nevarez said Jose Antonio Torrez told their roommate that his brother had been drinking all day, was very intoxicated and was acting “in a bizarre fashion.” The brothers got into a fight over some family issues, during which time Miguel Moreno Torrez bit his brother on the hand.
After being bitten, Jose Antonio Torrez told the roommate to call police. When the two officers arrived, Jose Antonio had run outside to escape but was chased by his brother with a 10-12 inch butcher knife.
Nevarez said Miguel Moreno Torrez stood close to his brother, holding the knife in a threatening manner over him. “That’s when the officers felt the decedent’s brother’s life was in danger and fired multiple rounds.”
A Bee story from June 14, 2014 said about 20 people protested the shooting a few blocks from the scene in southwest Fresno. Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said at the time the two officers shot and killed Miguel Moreno Torrez as he stood over his brother with a knife and threatened to kill him.
The Fresno County Coroner’s autopsy report shows Miguel Moreno Torrez was shot 15 to 16 times. The report shows his blood alcohol level was .17%, more than twice the legal limit for drivers.
The lawsuit says the use of any force was excessive and unreasonable under the circumstance, which was precipitated by the officers. The lawsuit says it deprived Miguel Moreno Torrez of his rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) and 14th Amendment (citizenship rights and equal protection) of the U.S. Constitution.
Chavo Romero, a paralegal for Segall-Gutierrez, said police “are painting it as if he (Miguel Moreno Torrez) was right over his (Jose Antonio Torrez’s) body, but they had kind of already separated.”
Romero said it’s important the case go to trial.
“We want to measure the police report to the actual evidence,” he said. “When we read police reports or listen to police officer accounts, we do not take that immediately as the truth. We measure truth based on evidence and testimony.”
Fresno city attorney Douglas Sloan said Tuesday he hadn’t seen a copy of the complaint yet.
“Once we’ve received it, we’ll take a look at the charges and respond appropriately.”