Tuesday, February 27, 2018
No Liability for Fatal Shooting of Woman With Knife
Memorandum Opinion Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of County, Sheriff’s Deputy
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a summary judgment in favor of San Mateo County and one of its sheriff’s deputies in a civil rights action brought by the estate of an 18-year-old woman who was fatally shot by the deputy when she came at him with a knife.
The memorandum opinion, handed down Friday, affirms a decision by District Judge Maxine M. Chesney of the Northern District of California. The panel that heard the case was comprised of the circuit’s chief judge, Sidney Thomas, Senior Judge Raymond Fisher, and Judge Stephen Rehnhardt.
Sheriff’s Deputy Menh Trieu, the plaintiffs argued, used “excessive force” in firing at Yanira Serrano, on June 3, 2014, at 9:20 p.m.
Early news reports quoted a witness as calling the implement carried by Serrano as a “butter knife”; lawyers for the estate termed it a “paring knife” which the woman intended to use on fruit in the kitchen; and the defendants’ lawyer, David A. Levy, referred to it at oral argument as a “steak knife.” The opinion uses the latter description.
Allegations of Complaint
According to the complaint, Lorenzo Serrano placed a 911 call, explaining that “this is not really an emergency,” but saying that “my sister has schizophrenia,” has “not taken the medication” and has been “yelling at my parents,” but had not been displaying violence.
The pleading adds:
“She was five feet, two inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. She was born with a congenital defect of her left calf and foot; causing both to be significantly atrophied. Because of her obese condition and her atrophied left foot/leg, she could not meaningfully run and limped badly.”
The complaint sets forth:
“As defendant Mehn Trieu approached the Serrano home, Yanira Serrano was exiting the home. She had the paring knife in her hand. When she saw him she hobbled toward him with the knife in her hand. Mehn Trieu drew his firearm and began to move away from Yanira Serrano. She approach him and when she got to approximately ten feet from him he shot her once in the chest. There were no persons standing in the vicinity of Mehn Trieu and Yanira Serrano did not threaten or otherwise pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to defendant Mehn Trieu. There was no reasonable basis for him to shoot her, and her actions toward him were the result of his careless and grossly reckless pre-shooting conduct.
“The gunshot that struck Yanira Serrano caused her great pain and suffering. Some time after being shot, she died on the street where she fell.”
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion declares:
“The district court properly concluded the plaintiffs ‘failed to raise a triable issue as to their claim that Deputy Trieu’s use of deadly force was unreasonable.’ Viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the evidence shows Ms. Serrano was wielding an 11-inch steak knife with a six-inch blade in an aggressive manner, pursued Deputy Trieu as he retreated for approximately 160 feet, ignored Deputy Trieu’s commands to stop and was within 15 to 20 feet of Deputy Trieu when he fired a single shot. Deputy Trieu was not required to continue his retreat….At minimum, summary judgment was proper because the plaintiffs have not pointed to any case that would have placed Deputy Trieu on ‘fair notice’ that the use of deadly force was unconstitutional under the circumstances of this case.”
At the oral argument on Feb. 15, the Serranos’ lawyer, Denisse Gastélum, told the judges:
“The Ninth Circuit has held that in the context of excessive force cases, the granting of motions for summary judgment should be done sparingly—and the reason why is because the excessive force inquiry naturally requires a jury to sift through disputed factual contentions and draw upon inferences from these disputes.”
Fisher interrupted to point out that Chesney “assumed all of the facts in favor of your client.”
Gastélum persisted that “a reasonable jury would find that shooting an individual who is armed with nothing but a paring knife who is 15 to 20 feet from the deputy is unreasonable.”
She recounted that a witness said the decedent was “shuffling, hobbling, just limping toward the deputy” which casts doubt on the credibility of the deputy that he “felt an imminent threat.”
The Ninth Circuit rejected those lawyer’s contentions, declaring in the opinion:
“Summary judgment was appropriate because the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, established Deputy Trieu’s use of deadly force was reasonable. This conclusion did not depend on Deputy Trieu’s credibility. The court, moreover, viewed each of the factual disputes the plaintiffs identify—Deputy Trieu’s manner of approaching the Serrano residence; the distance between Deputy Trieu and Ms. Serrano at the time of the shooting; and Ms. Serrano’s ability to ambulate as she advanced on Trieu—in the plaintiffs’ favor.”
The case is Estate of Serrano v. Trieu, 16-15744.
Copyright 2018, Metropolitan News Company