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Shooting memorial

Hector Vargas, of Santa Maria, places a candle under a gas station sign at South Broadway and Enos Drive, shortly after Javier Garcia Gaona was fatally shot by police after an attempted negotiation failed July 20, 2016.

The attorney representing the family of a suicidal man fatally shot by Santa Maria Police in 2016 is seeking to overturn the dismissal of a federal lawsuit, alleging officers used excessive force and violated the decedent's constitutional rights. 

The appeal was filed Nov. 30 in the case of Javier Garcia Gaona Jr., who was shot and killed July 20, 2016, after a 40-minute standoff with officers.

During the standoff, officers tried to negotiate with Gaona, who held a knife to his throat at the intersection of Enos and South Broadway. Officers deployed several rounds of less lethal ammunition before shooting Gaona after he reportedly ran toward officers.

Autopsy results showed Gaona had 14 bullet wounds, as well as large amounts of meth and amphetamine in his body at the time of his death. In April 2017, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office ruled the shooting to be a justifiable homicide.

After Gaona's death, attorneys William Schmidt and Eric Schweitzer filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 accusing the city of Santa Maria of unlawful seizure, failure to train police, negligence resulting in wrongful death and a violation of Gaona’s constitutional rights, including unlawful use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit also alleges that officers failed to use crisis-intervention tactics for the mentally unstable.

Bruce Praet, a contract attorney representing the city of Santa Maria and its police department, argued in July that, “the officers’ use of force was objectively reasonable,” and that the officers “are entitled to qualified immunity,” which protects government officials from liability for civil damages, as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known.

On July 26, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. dismissed the federal lawsuit based on a technicality defense -- "qualified immunity" -- which examines whether or not an officer violated constitutional rights, and whether those rights were “clearly established,” according to the law.

In essence, Birotte ruled that an officer could not know that firing beanbag rounds at Gaona or firing shots at him when he ran at them with a knife would violate Gaona’s rights. 

The appeal, filed on Nov. 30 with the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, maintains that firing less lethal ammunition in a lethal manner at a suicidal, mentally disturbed, knife-wielding, non-threatening person is a ‘clearly established’ violation of the person’s Fourth Amendment rights. 

The appeal maintains police should have known that deploying less-lethal rounds at Gaona, who was mentally unstable and suicidal, was excessive and a violation of his rights to not be shot.

While video evidence showed Gaona running 25 feet toward officers, the appeal claims he only was attempting to run from the pain after being shot with several beanbags. Gaona was disoriented and stumbled away to avoid being shot again, according to the appeal, and the only direction not blocked by a barrier was in the direction of the officers. 

The appeal also argues that even though Gaona didn't drop the knife, he didn't pose a threat. 

Gaona's death, at the end of the day, was the direct result of unconscionable conduct by the Santa Maria Police, according to the appeal, which also stated that in similar cases, police officers have been held liable. 

Speaking on behalf of the city, Praet said while he respects the Gaona family's right to appeal, city officials believe Birotte made the right decision, both on the facts of the case and the law of qualified immunity. 

He also argued that Santa Maria Police officers "went out of their way to try and negotiate a peaceful resolution" until Gaona lunged toward police with a knife. 

"It regrettably but naturally forced [officers] to defend themselves with lethal force," said Praet, who noted he planned to file an opposition to Schmidt's appeal in support of Birotte's ruling. 

Schmidt confirmed that if the appeal is not granted, the case will be filed with the Santa Maria Superior Court. 

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter