City of Fresno prevails – again – in civil rights lawsuit involving police shooting

Fresno Police chief Jerry Dyer, left, holds a press conference following a shooting by an officer along Blackstone Avenue between Vassar and Yale Avenues Wednesday afternoon, March 23, 2016 in Fresno.
Fresno Police chief Jerry Dyer, left, holds a press conference following a shooting by an officer along Blackstone Avenue between Vassar and Yale Avenues Wednesday afternoon, March 23, 2016 in Fresno. Fresno Bee file

A federal civil rights lawsuit against a Fresno police officer who fatally shot a teenager during a traffic stop has been dismissed without the city having to pay a dime in damages.

It’s the third time in recent months that the city has had to pay little or no damages in connection with a fatal police shooting.

The most recent dismissal involved the death of 18-year-old Joseph Ma, who ran from police and was shot by Officer Colin Lewis in February 2014 in southwest Fresno.

On the eve of trial last week, Fresno attorney Stanley Ma, who represents Joseph Ma’s mother, Tina Ma, elected to dismiss the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, said attorney Bruce Praet, who represents Lewis and the city.

“We were ready for trial,” Praet said. “We were confident that we would prevail.”

Stanley Ma and Tina Ma could not be reached for comment. It is not immediately known if they are related or why they decided to dismiss the lawsuit. But court records say that if the city had prevailed at trial, Praet would have filed a motion to get costly attorneys fees from them.

In July, the city of Fresno paid $25,000 to the family of Martin Figueroa, who was shot and killed by police inside his home three years ago. But the city admitted no wrongdoing.

That same month, a federal civil rights case involving the death of Miguel Moreno Torrez was dismissed because his family failed to comply with a court order to give their depositions and exchange evidence. Their lawyer said in court papers they were in Mexico and unable to participate in legal proceedings.

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, Chief Jerry Dyer said two officers – Lewis and Jordan Wamhoff – 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.

Court records say 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 he was shot after he threatened officers Robert Alvarez and Mikal Clement with a knife inside his mother’s home on Clinton Avenue, just north of Fresno City College, during the early evening hours of May 20, 2014.

Court records say Ma was a passenger in a car that was pulled over for a traffic violation near Lorena and Bardell avenues about 5:40 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2014. Once the car stopped, police say Ma ran away with a gun in his hand. He was shot in a nearby apartment complex.

The lawsuit filed by Ma’s mother says he was running from police “with nothing in his hands.” The suit also contended Ma “lawfully left the scene of the traffic stop” and that police “had no probable cause to believe that Ma posed a danger to himself or others in the community” and therefore had no legal justification to shoot him.

In court papers, attorney Stanley Ma accused Dyer of creating within his department “an atmosphere of lawlessness.”

But Praet said on Thursday that Stanley Ma’s accusations are untrue. He said the driver of the car testified in a videotaped deposition that Joseph Ma was armed with a gun. Praet said Lewis feared for his life when he shot Ma. Afterward, Lewis kicked the gun away from Ma’s hand, Praet said. The gun was recovered as evidence.

Next month, lawyers for the city return to federal court to defend police in an 8-year-old shooting case.

Earlier this month, the U.S Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s petition to overturn the more than $1 million in damages it has been ordered to pay to the parents of Stephen Willis, who was shot by police outside his apartment in southeast Fresno in March 2009.

Court records say the city is on the hook to pay a December 2013 jury verdict of $302,044 to Chris and Mary Willis and $106,852 in court costs and $717,642 in attorneys fees to the family’s San Francisco-based legal team of Walter Walker III, Beau Burbidge and Peter Koenig.

Burbidge said there is still a dispute over whether the Willis family should receive additional damages connected to their son’s pain and suffering right before he was fatally shot. Both sides will present their case in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Nov. 6.

That same day, Praet is scheduled to defend police in Fresno County Superior Court in a civil rights trial in which Fresno businessman Cesar Rodriguez contends officers ordered a police dog to attack him inside his office in April 2014. Deputy Police Chief Robert Nevarez has said officers did nothing wrong. He said Rodriguez was suspected of domestic violence, so officers had a duty to apprehend him.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts