A lawsuit filed after a September 2009 fatal Anaheim police shooting is still languishing in courts years later but gained a rare, key decision this week. On Tuesday, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed its own previous ruling that affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of wrongful death claims, among others. The case stems from an incident where Anaheim policeman Daron Wyatt—nowadays, Anaheim PD’s chief spokescop—shot Adolf Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez nearly point-blank during a physical struggle from the passenger side of his moving minivan after a traffic stop.
“We’re very grateful that the court of appeals saw that if it followed the letter of the law in this case, it would have reached an unjust outcome,” says Melanie Partow, an associate attorney for the Gonzalez family at the Law Offices of Dale Galipo. The 18-page opinion, chalk full of head-spinning legalese, is a rare one, especially in police brutality suits. “In researching and arguing the case on the appeal, I couldn’t find another case to be able to cite as precedent where something like this has happened,” Partow adds.
The Orange County District Attorney’s (OCDA) office cleared Wyatt of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting, but attorneys for the dead man’s family responded with a suit alleging numerous federal and state law claims. In June 2011, a federal judge sided with police in granting a summary judgement in their favor while dismissing state claims in the suit as well. The family’s firm filed federal and state appeals to fully revive the suit, but in 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit originally upheld the lower court’s decision.
The rulings concerned other circuit judges who reopened the case months later and prepared a final decision. “We asked the state court to stay the proceedings because there was a Ninth Circuit Court appeal that was pending,” says Partow. “We did not get that ruling.” Anaheim took the position that the state claims should be dismissed and the state appeals court agreed. “In dismissing those claims, they relied on what the federal trial courts had done and also what the Ninth Circuit had done,” Partow adds.
When the Ninth Circuit took a second crack at the case, it revived federal excessive force claims in 2014 citing a “significant inconsistency” in officer testimonies, while affirming officers didn’t violate the family’s rights to maintain an association with Gonzalez. Attorneys for the family refiled in state court in 2015 after the reversal. “It is uncommon for the Ninth Circuit to conduct a rehearing,” state appellate judge Richard D. Fybel writes in Tuesday’s opinion, “and even less common for the Ninth Circuit to issue an…opinion rejecting the Ninth Circuit panel decision.” The fortunate timing of the double take convinced the Fybel and the rest of the Fourth District Court of Appeals panel to revive state claims in the case; doing otherwise, as Anaheim wished, would be “manifestly unjust.”
Anaheim hasn’t decided if it will file an appeal of its own against this week’s decision. “For all involved, we would have like to have seen this matter brought to a close as several previous courts have determined,” says Anaheim city spokeswoman Erin Ryan. “This case shows the complexity and difficulty of situations our officers face.”
Before coming to Anaheim, Wyatt served with Placentia’s police force when he was named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit over the fatal police shooting of Brian Charles Smith in 2004. The city settled the suit for $500,000 in March 2008, four months before Wyatt announced his departure as head of the gang unit to join Anaheim PD.
If Anaheim decides not to appeal or offer a settlement, the eight-year-old shooting case takes a step closer to getting its day in court. A key argument will focus on whether Gonzalez sped off in the minivan, like police claimed, or crawled slowly while Wyatt was in the passenger side. “In the federal court, we’ve already prepared our pre-trail documents,” Partow says. “We are ready to go to trial.”