Court rules that deputy can be sued for shooting downed man and stomping head

“An officer has the right to terminate the threat, but not terminate the person.”

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Recorded on police dash cam video firing 18 shots at a suspect and repeatedly stomping his head against the ground, a California deputy was subsequently awarded the department’s medal of valor after the district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against the deputy. After reviewing the videos of the incident, a federal appeals court recently ruled that the mother of the deceased suspect has the right to sue the deputy for use of excessive force.

In September 2013, Connor Zion, 21, was reportedly suffering from a seizure when he cut his mother and his roommate with a kitchen knife. Responding to a 911 call from Zion’s condominium, Orange County Sheriff’s deputies Juan Lopez and Michael Higgins exited their vehicles when Zion suddenly charged at Lopez with a knife.

After stabbing Lopez’s arm twice, Zion ran back towards the condo when Higgins fired nine bullets at him. According to Lopez’s dash cam video, Zion immediately collapsed as Higgins hovered a few feet over him and fired nine more rounds.

Instead of reloading his weapon if he believed his life was still in danger or placing the suspect in handcuffs because Zion could barely move, Lopez paced back and forth before taking a running start and stomping his head three times. According to his autopsy report, Zion was shot 11 times and died from the gunshot wounds.

Zion’s toxicology report revealed methamphetamine and amphetamine in his bloodstream, while his criminal history disclosed numerous arrests involving possession of drugs and weapons, assault, and similar charges. Earlier that day, Zion’s mother feared her son had become delusional as he predicted the police would kill him.

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Representing Zion’s mother, attorney Jerry Steering told The OC Register, “An officer has the right to terminate the threat, but not terminate the person.”

As the district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against Higgins, the sheriff’s department awarded the deputy with the medal of valor for saving Lopez’s life. Zion’s mother filed a lawsuit against Higgins for use of excessive force against her son, but the suit was quashed in favor of the department.

Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision and ruled that Zion’s mother could sue Higgins for use of excessive force. The federal court also decided to publicly release the dash cam videos from both Higgins’ and Lopez’s patrol cars.

“When police confront a suspect who poses an immediate threat, they may use deadly force against him,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote a recent opinion for the unanimous three-judge panel. “But they must stop using deadly force when the suspect no longer poses a threat.”

The appellate ruling continued, “A reasonable jury could find that Zion was no longer an immediate threat, and that Higgins should have held his fire unless and until Zion showed signs of danger or flight. Or, a jury could find that the second round of bullets was justified, but not the head-stomping.”

In a prepared statement, the sheriff’s department reiterated, “We stand by the District Attorney’s July 2014 investigation into this officer-involved shooting, which concluded Deputy Higgins did not commit a crime. According to their review, he used justifiable force and saved the life of a fellow deputy (Juan Lopez) and potentially prevented injuries to others.”

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