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Judge Dismisses Federal Lawsuit over Fatal Officer-Involved Shooting in 2016

Knife-wielding Javier Garcia Goana Jr., 31, was killed by Santa Maria police near South Broadway and Enos Drive

Memorial flowers near gas station sign.
A memorial was created near the site where Javier Garcia Goana Jr. of Santa Maria was fatally shot by police two years ago. A federal judge last week dismissed a lawsuit filed Gaona’s family against the city and Police Department. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of a knife-wielding man fatally shot by Santa Maria police two years ago, but left open the possibility for some parts of the case to be filed in state court.

U.S. District Court Judge André Birotte Jr. made his ruling last week in the lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of Javier Garcia Goana Jr., 31, of Santa Maria.

Gaona was shot multiple times on July 20, 2016, after police responded to a man armed with a knife near a soon-to-open bank. 

After less-lethal rounds failed to subdue Gaona, several officers fired their service weapons at the man who had been acting erratically at the busy intersection of South Broadway and Enos Drive as a large crowd of spectators gathered.

“It is ordered, adjudged and decreed that plaintiffs’ federal claims are dismissed with prejudice, and the remaining state law claims are dismissed without prejudice for lack of jurisdiction,” Birotte’s July 26 order said. 

A dismissal with prejudice means the claims cannot be refiled.

But the judge left open a chance for some aspects to be filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

Fresno-area civil rights and criminal defense attorneys Eric Schweitzer and William “Bill” Schmidt filed the lawsuit, dated March 13, 2017, in U.S. District Court’s Central District of California on behalf of Goana’s estate along with his parents, Javier Garcia Gaona and Yolanda Garcia.

Several weeks ago, the city’s attorneys filed a motion for a summary ruling, leading to the judge’s decision.

“While there are sadly never any winners in any officer-involved shooting, this case is uniquely situated for summary judgment in that it was captured on video so as to virtually eliminate any material issues of fact,” according to the city’s contract attorney, Bruce Praet, who added that the facts of the case would not change.

The city argued that the use of force in the case was "objectively reasonable under the circumstances.” 

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs’s attorneys alleged “excessive and unreasonable force,” and claimed the city did not make an effort to use crisis-intervention tactics.

The lawsuit, which also named several police officers, cited five causes of action, including unlawful use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, failure to train and supervise city police, battery, and wrongful-death negligence.

As Gaona acted erratically, Spanish-speaking officers and FBI-trained crisis negotiation team members spent 40 minutes trying to calm him and convince him to surrender. 

Gaona also appeared to try to cut his throat and stab himself in the stomach, although he received only superficial cuts, according to his autopsy.

Toxicology tests later revealed Gaona had “a significant amount of methamphetamine” in his system.

A sergeant ordered officers to deploy less-lethal beanbag rounds and 40-mm rubber projectiles to try to get Gaona to drop the knife and stop him from running. Instead, Gaona ran approximately 25 feet toward officers with the knife raised, leading to the fatal shooting.

However, the plaintiffs’ attorney said many facts remained in dispute and argued against a summary judgement.

“The officers resorted to less-lethal force to bring closure to a situation with which they had lost patience. Nobody was under immediate threat. This use of excessive force in the form of less-lethal munitions without good cause violates the Fourth Amendment as well as California law, and mandates a denial of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment,” Schmidt wrote.

Both sides also disputed whether officers knew Gaona had dropped the knife, with the plaintiffs's attorney saying officers gave "false testimony" in saying the knife never left Gaona's hand until he fell to the ground.

But the city's attorney said in watching a slow version of the video, it appeared the knife may have left Gaona's hand before the final shots were fired.

Prior court rulings say a video "must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on scene in rapidly unfolding and tense circumstances, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight," the city's attorney said.

"As tragic as any death might be, it is abundantly clear that the established law and undisputed facts mandate dismissal of all claims against the city of Santa Maria and each of its individually named officers on summary judgment," Praet wrote in the motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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