The U.S. Supreme Court Monday cleared the way for a federal jury to hear the case against a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed Santa Rosa teenager Andy Lopez in 2013 after mistaking a toy pellet gun the teen was carrying for an assault rifle.
The justices denied the county’s petition to give then-Deputy Erick Gelhaus immunity from civil liability in the fatal shooting, putting an end to the county’s attempt to reverse a lower court’s decision. In September, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges indicated 13-year-old Lopez posed no immediate threat to Gelhaus and that a jury should decide if the deputy used excessive force.
“At this point, either the county settles the case or the case goes to trial,” said Gerald Peters, an Agoura Hills-based attorney representing Lopez’s parents in the appeals process.
The case will return to the U.S. District Court in Oakland and proceed toward a trial.
The county’s petition before the nation’s highest court was the last route of appeal in the case. Attorney Noah Blechman said the county had hoped the justices would give Gelhaus qualified immunity, shielding him from being sued, based on an argument that officers should be given the benefit of the doubt when they perceive a deadly threat.
“We’re disappointed because we wanted to get clarity and guidance on some of these key legal issues that impact not only the community at large but really law enforcement nationwide,” Blechman said.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Sonoma County’s petition without comment.
Franklin Zimring, professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, said Supreme Court justices rarely review cases involving civil damages, which is the case in the Lopez family’s lawsuit. He said the denial sets no precedent and leaves the matter up to district courts for resolution.
“It’s bad news for the litigant (Sonoma County) but doesn’t change the law,” Zimring said.
Lopez’s parents are suing the county and Gelhaus in federal court, seeking unspecified damages. They argue the deputy used excessive force and violated the boy’s civil rights.
Lopez was killed Oct. 22, 2013, on Moorland Avenue on Santa Rosa’s southwestern outskirts. Gelhaus was riding in a patrol car when he spotted the child walking on the sidewalk, carrying an airsoft gun designed to look like an AK-47, the barrel pointed toward the ground. The orange tip indicating the gun was a toy had been broken off.
The patrol car stopped about 65 feet behind Lopez, and Gelhaus got out and crouched behind his door. He ordered the boy to drop the gun. As Lopez began turning, Gelhaus fired eight rounds, striking the teen seven times. Lopez died at the scene.
A Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office review found the shooting was justified and cleared Gelhaus of criminal wrongdoing.
Sonoma County’s lawyers have argued Gelhaus, who later was promoted to sergeant, feared for his life and believed Lopez posed a deadly threat when the teen began to turn toward him.
In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton denied the county’s request to give Gelhaus immunity and said jurors should decide whether the deputy’s actions were negligent or reasonable.
The county appealed. And in a September split ruling, 9th Circuit judges denied the county’s bid to overturn the lower court decision, suggesting there were enough disputed facts in the case that it should be decided by a jury.