Crime

Plaintiffs stuck in Mexico, so city of Fresno prevails in police shooting civil case

The fatal police shooting of farmworker Miguel Moreno Torrez in June 2014 prompted a small demonstration at Fresno and C streets in southwest Fresno. On Wednesday, July 6, 2017, a judge dismissed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Fresno Police Department in connection with Torrez’s death.
The fatal police shooting of farmworker Miguel Moreno Torrez in June 2014 prompted a small demonstration at Fresno and C streets in southwest Fresno. On Wednesday, July 6, 2017, a judge dismissed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Fresno Police Department in connection with Torrez’s death. Fresno Bee file

The city of Fresno, which has paid millions to settle federal civil rights lawsuits filed by the families of loved ones killed by police, this week prevailed in such a case – on a technicality.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the city would have prevailed had the case gone to trial.

The case involved the 2014 fatal shooting of farmworker Miguel Moreno Torrez. It was dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to comply with a court order to give their depositions and exchange evidence. Their lawyer said they are in Mexico and unable to participate in legal proceedings, court records say.

Torrez, 22, was shot outside his southwest Fresno home on Tulare Street near Mayor Street on June 11, 2014.

At the time of the shooting, Dyer said two officers fatally shot a drunken Torrez as he stood over his brother with a butcher knife and threatened to kill him. A Fresno County coroner’s autopsy report showed Torrez was shot 15 to 16 times. The report also shows his blood alcohol level was .17 percent, more than twice the legal limit for drivers.

According to the lawsuit filed by Torrez’s family, 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.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii dismissed the lawsuit against the city and Fresno police officers Colin Lewis and Jordan Wamhoff.

In his ruling, Ishii pointed out that Whittier lawyer James Segall-Gutierrez filed the lawsuit in May 2015 on behalf of Torrez’s family. U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez, however, dismissed the lawsuit in September 2016 after Segall-Gutierrez failed to comply with a court order to allow the city’s lawyers to take the plaintiffs’ depositions. Mendez also said Segall-Gutierrez failed to participate in discovery – the exchange of evidence with the city.

But before the case was dismissed, Segall-Gutierrez filed a second federal lawsuit in June 2016 that alleged similar claims, Ishii’s ruling said. Because Mendez had dismissed the first lawsuit with prejudice, Segall-Gutierrez was legally prohibited from filing the second lawsuit, Ishii said.

Segall-Gutierrez did not return a telephone call or email asking for comment. But in court records, Segall-Gutierrez told the court that his clients were living in Culican, Sinaloa, Mexico, and didn’t have the money to travel to Fresno or the proper documentations.

Segall-Gutierrez also wanted the city to help him get visas for Torrez’s family so they could give their depositions. But the city’s lawyers said it was not their responsibility to get the visa, court documents say.

Ishii’s ruling noted that Segall-Gutierrez did not oppose the city’s motion to dismiss.

The dismissal comes in the wake of the city having to pay nearly $3 million to settle two federal civil rights cases in the past eight months.

In January, the city agreed to pay $675,000 to settle a lawsuit in which a Fresno police officer ran over and killed a bicyclist who was fleeing from a traffic stop In court papers, the city contended Angel Toscano’s death was an accident; that Toscano fell in front of a patrol car and Officer James Lyon was unable to avoid hitting him.

But a lawyer for Toscano’s family said if the case had gone to trial, the evidence would have shown that Lyon intentionally bumped the rear wheel of Toscano’s bicycle, causing him to fall.

In November, the city agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by the parents of a Fresno man who was fatally shot by police in June 2012.

Jaime Reyes Jr., 28, was shot while climbing a fence at Aynesworth Elementary School in southeast Fresno.

If the lawsuit had gone to trial, lawyers for Reyes family said, the evidence would have shown that Officer Juan Avila shot Reyes near the top of the fence. Once Reyes toppled to the ground, Avila shot him three more times in the back as he lay wounded, face down on the ground, the lawyers said.

On the horizon are wrongful-death civil rights lawsuits filed against the Fresno Police Department by the families of Dylan Noble, Martin Figueroa, Freddy Centeno and others. (Court records say the trial that will probe the May 2014 shooting death of Figueroa will start next month.)

The city hasn’t always been on the losing end. A year ago, a federal jury ruled that two Fresno police officers were justifiable in using deadly force in the 2014 shooting of a woman armed with kitchen knives. Veronica Lynn Canter, 48, was fatally shot on March 7, 2014, after she locked her ex-boyfriend out of his apartment near Bulldog Stadium.

In the Torrez case, the family’s lawsuit contended he did not speak English, so he was unable to understand the officers’ commands. Segall-Gutierrez also contended that Torrez had his hands in the air or was raising his hands in shock as he heard the unintelligible commands by officers.

But Dyer said on Wednesday that his officers were justified in shooting Torrez.

“The two brothers had been in a fight which prompted a call to the police department,” Dyer said in an email in response to questions by The Bee. “ When officers arrived they saw the decedent chasing a male while holding a butcher knife over his head. When the officers fired their handguns, the suspect was within a few feet of the victim and appeared to be getting ready to stab him.”

Dyer said a witness told detectives in a recorded statement that had it not been for the immediate actions of the officers, the victim would have been stabbed. In addition, Dyer said, Torrez’s brother told officers in a recorded statement that had it not been for the officers firing their weapon, he would have been stabbed by his brother.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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