OAKLAND — The family of 13-year-old Andy Lopez will have to wait to move forward with a civil lawsuit against Sonoma County and the sheriff's deputy who shot and killed their son, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton granted the county's motion to halt further proceedings until mid-May so that local prosecutors can have more time to decide if criminal charges are warranted for Dep. Erick Gelhaus.
"Let's get through the first hurdle first," Hamilton said.
The county's lawyer, Steven Mitchell, argued the stay would protect the integrity of an ongoing criminal review and preserve Gelhaus' right against self-incrimination. Presumably, Gelhaus would be required as part of the civil suit to make a sworn statement about the shooting.
Also, Mitchell pointed to a declaration from District Attorney Jill Ravitch asking that she be allowed to evaluate the case without the pressure or interference of a civil action. Ravitch received a police report on the shooting late last month and has said she will attempt to make a decision in 90 days.
"She's crying out in this highly public matter to say, 'Let me do my job,'<TH>" Mitchell told the judge.
Hamilton agreed to stop the case until the two sides meet again in court May 15. She said she would consider extending the stay if criminal charges are filed but warned she was not inclined to order a blanket stay while any criminal case plays out.
Arnoldo Casillas, the Lopez family's attorney, said outside court he was disappointed in the decision, which he said would delay his ability to get justice for his clients.
Casillas argued the civil case should be allowed to go forward so he could make "meaningful" progress toward a resolution. He had no plans to question Gelhaus in the next 90 days, he said, and asked to be able to proceed in other areas.
He said the outcome of the civil case was important to county residents as well as the family.
"The county has the case on the radar," he said.
But Hamilton said the public's interest in the integrity of the criminal investigation is greater. The fact that the civil lawsuit was filed within a few weeks of the killing warrants a "modest stay," she said.
Lopez was killed Oct. 22 as he walked along Moorland Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa carrying a BB that resembled an AK-47 rifle. Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran, fired on the youth when he turned in his direction.
The shooting has touched off a series of protests decrying what activists say is excessive police force. Many have called on Ravitch to charge Gelhaus with murder or manslaughter.
Others have suggested Ravitch might stall a decision to avoid alienating voters in her contested June 3 re-election. Casillas referred in court to the district attorney's "difficult situation."
"God bless her," Casillas told the judge. "She's damned if she does, damned if she doesn't."
The Lopez family filed its federal civil rights lawsuit Nov. 4, alleging Gelhaus acted recklessly in shooting their son and accusing the Sheriff's Office of encouraging excessive force.
Casillas suggested the family could seek damages in excess of the $24 million he won last year for the family of a Los Angeles boy who was shot and paralyzed by police while playing with an airsoft gun.