After an illegal left turn and near-collision with their police cruiser, Officers Matthew Ellis and Officer Daron Wyatt acted reasonably when they ran the van's plates. They even acted reasonably when they followed the van, which had previously been involved in a narcotics stop. The decision to pull the driver over after the van swerved again was likely reasonable as well.
Did they act reasonably when, minutes later, the officers struck the resisting driver, Adolf Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez, with their flashlights and possibly attempted a sleeper hold? How about seconds after that, when Officer Wyatt shot the driver at point blank?
That question is why this case, and others like it, led to race riots in Anaheim. It's also why the case reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Majority: Split-Second Reactions Were Reasonable
The officers didn't have time to make measured reactions. When they first approached the vehicle, the driver made multiple furtive movements towards the area in-between the front seats. He was also concealing something that appeared to be a plastic bag in his hand. At one point, it appeared as if he was going to eat the mystery item (likely drugs).
The officers were entitled to use force (the attempted hold, the striking with fists and flashlights) to prevent the destruction of evidence and to ensure their safety. The three-factor Graham test provides three considerations when evaluating the need for force: (1) the severity of the crime, (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the officers, and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest.
The officers suspected a felony-grade drug offense. They felt threatened, first by the furtive reaches between the seats, then by Gonzalez's shifting the car into drive and taking off, with one officer still in the vehicle. As for resistance, he both resisted with his hands and by attempting to flee by driving away.
The totality of the three considerations points to reasonableness.
As for any testimonial discrepancy, a bad estimate of distance or time does not create an issue for a fact-finder. Wyatt estimated that the car moved for "less than ten" and possibly "less than five" seconds, accelerated to upwards of fifty miles-per-hour, and yet, only managed to go about fifty feet.
The majority's holding? "[M]inor inconsistency" and "rough estimate."
Dissent: Inconsistencies in Officers' Stories Require a Jury
The first question that entered our car-loving minds was: what was the van's 0-60 time? Judge Clifton shares our curiosity, and provides the answer, and a link, in the footnote: a 1992 Mazda MPV takes 11.2 seconds to reach 60 mph from a complete stop.
Meanwhile, a van traveling 50 miles per hour covers more than 73 feet in a second. At a distance of 50 feet traveled, the van would have been crawling at 3.4 miles per hour (assuming ten seconds of movement before the shooting).
The numbers are not merely bad estimates -- they are factually impossible. Judge Clifton would've sent the case to a jury.
- Gonzalez v. City of Anaheim (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- No JMOL, Immunity for Cop Who Emptied a Clip in Unarmed Suspect (FindLaw's Ninth Circuit Blog)
- No, Really? Dragging Man Through Car Window is Excessive Force? (FindLaw's Ninth Circuit Blog)