Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said video evidence and testimony from other officers at the scene seriously undermines the claims by Heath Rankin that he was justified in shooting Manuel Longoria twice in the back in 2014.
Tuesday’s ruling does not mean the Longoria’s relatives win the wrongful death lawsuit they filed against Rankin and the county. Unless overturned, however, it gives them a chance to make their case to a jury.
But Reinhart, in the 23-page ruling, detailed why jurors might question Rankin’s version of events.
“No other officers saw Longoria assume a ‘shooters stance’ and responded accordingly,” the judge wrote. And Reinhardt also noted there were videos.
“The videos depict Longoria flailing his arms and moving erratically before turning around and raising his empty hands above his head in the several seconds before Rankin shoots and kills him,” the judge noted. “These videos provide some of the most important evidence as to what occurred before and during the shooting and what Rankin actually saw.”
If nothing else, Reinhardt said that evidence raises “material questions of fact about the reasonableness of Rankin’s actions and the credibility of his post-hoc justification of his conduct.” And that, the judge said, means U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton erred in dismissing the case outright and not letting it go to a jury.
Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Navideh Forghani said her agency will not comment on the ruling other than to confirm that Rankin still works for the sheriff’s office.
Court records show the incident began with Longoria, distraught over his relationship with the mother of three of his children, stole his brother-in-law’s car and began driving around Eloy. Police initiated a traffic stop but he fled, leading officers on a 70-minute chase.
Eloy police asked the sheriff’s department to be on “standby” in case Longoria left the city. Rankin and his partner joined the pursuit and participated for more than 40 minutes.
During the chase Longoria stopped several times, even speaking with officers, but ignored their commands to surrender.
At one of those stops, an Eloy detective saw that Longoria was holding a wallet — and not a gun — behind his back, with that information both shouted to other officers on scene and broadcast on a radio frequency Rankin was monitoring. Rankin said he did not hear that.
Eloy police eventually ended the chase by disabling Longoria’s car. Rankin about a half block away where he was supposed to help maintain a perimeter, on hearing the crash grabbed his semi-automatic rifle and ran towards the scene.
With eight officers surrounding him, guns drawn, a police sergeant shouted at least twice for officers to use less-than-lethal force. Rankin asserts he did not hear that.
After Rankin stopped sprinting, other officers fired beanbag rounds at Longoria, hitting him. He also was an electric stun device.
Longoria, after flinching and moving erratically, turned half way around to face his car and put his empty hands above his head, his back to the officers and Rankin. Rankin fired two rounds from his rifle into Longoria’s back, killing him.
After the Attorney General’s Office cleared Rankin of criminal wrongdoing, his family filed suit. Bolton dismissed it, concluding the department and Rankin were entitled to qualified immunity.
Reinhardt acknowledged police are shielded from civil suit as long as their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” And he said officers are shielded from “mere mistakes in judgment.”
But he said the facts of this case raise questions about the reasonableness of Rankin’s judgment.
He said Longoria was unarmed, surrounded by police, had been shot by bean bag rounds and an electronic stun gun, “and was in the process of putting his hands over his head reflexively or in an effort to surrender.” By contrast, Rankin claims when Longoria turned he threatened him or fellow officers with a “shooter’s stance.”
“Because of the many material, disputed facts in this case, Rankin’s credibility or the accuracy of his version of the facts is a central question that must be answered by a jury,” Reinhardt wrote.