Sonoma County to pay $3 million to settle lawsuit over Andy Lopez shooting
Sonoma County will pay $3 million to settle the civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy who was shot and killed in 2013 by a sheriff’s deputy.
The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve the settlement, County Counsel Bruce Goldstein announced after a closed-session meeting about the case.
The agreement brings to a close the county’s most prominent civil rights lawsuit - over a shooting that became a searing flashpoint for police-community relations and public debate about law enforcement practices. The settlement amount is the largest paid out by Sonoma County in cases involving officer use of force, according to county figures.
The lawsuit was filed by Lopez’s parents on Nov. 4, 2013, almost two weeks after then-deputy Erick Gelhaus shot the teen, who was walking down the street carrying an airsoft BB gun that resembled an assault rifle.
The settlement did not include an admission of liability by the county in the wrongful death suit or any additional terms governing the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, Goldstein said.
The Lopez family’s attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, will withdraw the case from the federal court system in the near future as part of the settlement conditions, Goldstein said.
“I think both sides evaluated the risks of litigation and both sides felt like at this point, it was the best way to resolve the case,” Goldstein said. The case had been proceeding toward trial in July.
Lopez’s parents were pleased with the settlement, Casillas said, and with the lasting impact the civil rights lawsuit has had both locally and countrywide. Most notably, the lawsuit set a precedent at the U.S. Supreme Court in cases where officers use deadly force on a person with a replica gun, he said.
A petition filed by the county to the nation’s highest court in the case was rejected in June, keeping intact a lower court’s decision that indicated Lopez posed no immediate threat to Gelhaus and that a jury should decide if excessive force was used in the shooting. The county had sought immunity for Gelhaus from civil liability in the case.
“That precedent is going to be on the books forever, and for them, through that, Andy is living forever,” Casillas said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Despite those gains, the legal process has been “incredibly painful” for Andy’s parents, Sujey Cruz and Rodrigo Lopez, Casillas said.
The Lopez family was not ready to make a public comment on the settlement Tuesday, he said.
“It still doesn’t help them in a tangible way to deal with that loss,” Casillas said. “They’re going to miss Andy every day of their lives.”
The federal lawsuit alleged Gelhaus acted recklessly when he opened fire on Lopez and accused the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office of establishing polices that were “encouraging, accommodating, or ratifying” of deputies’ use of deadly force.
The case has cost the county approximately $1.4 million in legal fees over the past five years, Sonoma County spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said.
The settlement eclipses the previous high-dollar mark for the county in a case involving an officer’s use of force.
The previous record stemmed from the 2015 federal lawsuit that alleged a sheriff’s SWAT team launched an unwarranted siege on the home of a Santa Rosa man that lasted close to 12 hours, leading to the man’s suicide. The county announced they would pay $1.9 million to Glenn Swindell’s family in June.
The county also paid $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit involving the March 2007 shooting death of Jeremiah Chass, 17, by sheriff’s deputies.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano offered his condolences to the Lopez family Tuesday afternoon, reading from a prepared statement that mirrored comments he made in a Facebook video posted earlier in the day.
He said the Sheriff’s Office and county officials decided a settlement was the best solution in the federal case, one that he said stemmed from a “tragic event” involving a sheriff’s deputy and a teen carrying a BB gun that resembled a real rifle.
Giordano noted Gelhaus was cleared by the District Attorney’s Office of criminal wrongdoing in the case. He also warned people against owning replica firearms.
“The reality is that our deputy was faced with a weapon that looked like a real weapon,” Giordano said when asked about policy changes within the department since the shooting. “You can’t change that fact.”
He could not offer any specific policy changes enacted by the department as a direct result of the Lopez shooting, but he did say deputies now train with a use of force simulator that teaches them how to respond to potentially lethal situations. The department has also increased community engagement and awareness since the shooting, a change from the office’s response after Lopez died, he said.