An appeals court panel on Tuesday announced it sided with a federal judge who dismissed a lawsuit against Salt Lake City and an officer who shot and killed an unarmed man outside a convenience store in 2014.
Like U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ majority opinion determined Officer Bron Cruz acted reasonably under the circumstances in shooting Dillon Taylor and reaffirmed the officer’s qualified immunity, according to the 68-page opinion.
Cruz shot Taylor twice on Aug. 11, 2014, after a person called police to report Hispanic men who “flashed a gun.” Cruz and two other officers found Taylor and two men outside a 7-Eleven near 2100 South and State Street.
When Cruz confronted Taylor and told him to stop and show his hands, Taylor didn’t respond.
Instead, video shows, the 20-year-old kept his hands in his pants and tried to walk away. When Taylor did turn around and pull out his hands, Cruz shot him twice. Taylor didn’t have a gun and was wearing headphones, attached to a phone in his pocket when he was killed.
The 10th Circuit judges Jerome Holmes and Carolyn B. McHugh based their decision on Supreme Court precedent that says officers must act reasonably in their “split-second judgments” about whether to shoot someone — and that officers, Holmes wrote, “need not wait until they see the gun’s barrel or the knife’s blade before using deadly force to protect themselves or those around them.”
“A reasonable officer could well conclude that Mr. Taylor’s drawing motion was hostile and that he sought to use a firearm against Officer Cruz or the other officers,” Holmes said, “even though this risk assessment ultimately proved to be mistaken.”
In a dissent, Senior Circuit Judge Carlos F. Lucero denounced both the district and appellate court’s decisions, saying the Tuesday opinion calls into question whether the qualified immunity doctrine is broken, since it doesn’t punish “unconstitutional police actions” and serves “no discernible societal benefit.”
Qualified immunity protects government employee from civil lawsuits if their conduct doesn’t violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”
Lucero said he would have reversed the lower court’s decision and remand the case for a jury trial.
“Dillon had a phone, a Snickers bar, and a nickel in his pocket — not a gun,” Lucero wrote. “Officer Cruz had no basis to believe otherwise.”
Taylor’s family filed the lawsuit in October 2015. They first alleged wrongful death, denial of family association and excessive force claims, but later dropped all but the excessive force claims in August 2017. Salt Lake City and Cruz later asked for the judge to dismiss the case.
In May 2019, Nuffer granted that request and dismissed the remaining claims with prejudice, meaning the lawsuit couldn’t be filed again. He also granted Cruz qualified immunity.
Lawyers for Taylor’s family appealed to the 10th Circuit Court, arguing the “only crime” Taylor and the two men were accused of when police were called was “being ... Hispanic and young.” They asked the court to “provide clear direction to the district courts that shooting unarmed men and women of color will not be objectively reasonable under most circumstances.”
The appellate court’s opinion states that the 911 call indicated “a misdemeanor or a felony — or it could have been no crime at all.” They rejected to look at racial bias as part of the “objective-reasonableness analysis.”
The majority of the court believes Cruz, “reasonably perceived that Mr. Taylor posed an immediate, mortal threat to his safety or the safety of others.”
Lucero, in his dissent, wondered if his colleagues watched the same video as him.
Where the other judges saw Taylor ignoring multiple clear commands from police, Lucero heard officers yelling “confusing and contradictory commands” to show hands and get on the ground.
Where the other judges saw Taylor “digging” in his waistband for what could have been a gun in the four seconds after Taylor turned around and was shot, Lucero saw evidence of other possible outcomes. Taylor, he said, could have been attempting to comply or pull up his pants, as his companions testified.
“Today, this court at once invades the province of the jury to resolve disputes of material fact and,” he wrote, “disregards decades of Supreme Court precedent when it bends over backward to draw all possible inferences in favor of Officer Cruz.”
Salt Lake City police spokesman Brent Weisberg said in a statement that, “The SLCPD acknowledges the tragedy of this incident and the very real fact that our officer reacted quickly and reasonably in a perilous and uncertain situation. We appreciate the United States Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ nuanced and detailed majority opinion.”
He said the case is part of a “nationwide conversation on officer liability and use of force,” and SLCPD continues to evaluate its use of force standards to keep the community and officers safe.
A Salt Lake City spokesperson said in a written statement that Taylor’s family “has experienced a terrible loss and our hearts go out to them,” but that officers must make split-second decision in high-stress situations.
“We support our officer and his professional judgment in this matter,” the statement read, “and appreciate the 10th Circuit’s majority opinion in this case.”
An attorney for Taylor’s family also did not respond immediately, but wrote on Twitter, “The majority concludes, as a matter of law, that it was objectively reasonable, based on qualified immunity, to free Officer Cruz from any liability without a trial. This cannot be right.”