LA Officer Immune From Suit in Teen Shooting

A Los Angeles police officer is immune from civil suit over his shooting of a teen rapping before school with three friends, but the officer must face claims of civil rights violation in the five-hour hand-cuffed detention of the four teens, an appeals court has held.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday partially protected plain clothes officer Miguel Gutierrez, who allegedly mistook a plastic Airsoft replica gun with an orange tip, denoting a toy, in the 2015 wounding of Jamar Green.

“Under the circumstances, a rational finder of fact could find that Gutierrez’s use of deadly force shocked the conscience and was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, the panel held that because no analogous case existed at the time of the shooting, the district court erred by denying Gutierrez qualified immunity for his claim,” the court held.

The panel did uphold the portion of the trial court order requiring Gutierrez to face excessive force claims for handcuffing and holding the four teens during a five-hour interrogation and investigation.

The Shooting

The four teenagers met in an alleyway near school to listen to and sing rap music. This was a regular meeting for the friends before school. During this session one of the four, Michael Sanders, was holding a plastic toy gun with a bright orange tip. The other three say Sanders kept the gun pointed downward at waist-level and did not fire it that morning.

As the teens turned off the music and prepared to head for school, Gutierrez and his partner in an unmarked car spotted the teens. Gutierrez allegedly believe that Sanders was pointing a handgun at Jason Huerta to rob him and shouted, “Gun, gun, gun.”

Guitierrez ran from the car toward the teens, he alleges he warned Sanders to drop the gun and fired three shots, one of which hit Green in the back. The teens say the officer, who was in plainclothes, did not identify himself and fired while running toward the group, hitting Green.

After the shooting all four remained handcuffed during five hours of questioning, including Green who wore handcuffs through the duration of his hospital examination, until detectives interrogated him.

Green and his parents sued the officers and the Los Angeles police department. For the current appeal, the trial judge denied immunity for Gutierrez on the allegations of excessive force, due process violation and civil rights violation. The appeals court upheld that portion applying to the five-hour detention of the four teens.

The ruling by Judge Jacqueline Nguyen was joined by Judge Andrew Kleinfeld and visiting Judge Guy Cole of the Cleveland, Ohio-based 6th Circuit.

Case: Nicholson v. Gutierrez, No. 17-56648

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