©2020 John Ryan, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute

On January 3, 2020, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Ybarra v. City of Chicago.[i] In Ybarra, the Court upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment to a pair of defendant police officers who had shot and killed the driver of a vehicle that had just been involved in a drive-by shooting.

  1. Facts

The Court set forth the relevant facts of the case as follows:

During the early hours of August 29, 2015, Chicago Police Department Commander Francis Valadez and Officer Monica Reyes (collectively, “the officers”) were in an unmarked police car patrolling a neighborhood where a gang-related shooting had recently occurred. At approximately 1:30 a.m., the officers saw a rear passenger in Rafael Cruz’s Chevy Tahoe fire five gunshots at the occupants of another car. Immediately after the shooting, Cruz drove away, reaching speeds of 40 to 70 miles per hour in a 30-miles-per-hour zone. Reyes called in an emergency, reporting “shots fired” over the police radio. Valadez was driving and followed Cruz’s Tahoe, which had dark, tinted windows. The officers followed Cruz’s Tahoe through city streets for approximately one mile but did not activate any emergency lights or sirens on their vehicle.

With the unmarked police car still following him, Cruz turned westbound and struck a parked car on the north side of the street with enough force that it pushed the car forward into a second car parked roughly a car-length in front of it, causing the second car to roll into a third. Despite that collision, Cruz kept driving before crashing into a fourth car on the south side of the street and coming to a stop near the entrance of a parking lot.

At that point, the officers parked their car behind Cruz’s Tahoe, believing that it had stalled due to the damage it had sustained during the collisions. Valadez then began getting out of the car while announcing that he was a police officer. Almost simultaneously, Cruz put his Tahoe into reverse, forcing Valadez back into his car just before the back of the Tahoe struck the driver’s side of the car. The collision forced the open driver’s side door closed and caused the officers’ “whole car” to “rock[].” Reyes thought that Valadez had been hit by the Tahoe and was concerned that he may have been severely injured in the seconds following the collision. Cruz then pulled forward and turned left into the parking lot.

The officers followed Cruz into the parking lot on foot, wearing plain clothes, duty belts, and bulletproof police vests that displayed their police star. Valadez ran to the south side of the parking lot, while Reyes positioned herself behind a parked car near the parking lot’s entrance. Valadez testified that he shouted “police” while running into the parking lot. The parking lot was “pretty well lit” by lights in the lot and at the adjacent intersection. One of Cruz’s passengers, Pasqual Nava, testified that he knew that Valadez was a police officer because he could see Valadez’s vest. Reyes also yelled several times to “stop the vehicle” and “stop it.” Two of Cruz’s passengers, Jose Cabello and Pasqual Nava, did not hear Valadez or Reyes say anything.

Cruz did not stop and instead made a three-point turn back toward the parking lot’s entrance, which was the only path for vehicles to enter or exit the parking lot. The headlights of Cruz’s Tahoe shone directly at Valadez and then at Reyes as Cruz completed his three-point turn and pulled forward. Valadez initially stated that as the Tahoe began driving forward, he saw the driver’s window being lowered two to three inches and believed that Cruz was about to begin shooting at him. Video footage, however, showed that the window may have already been rolled down before Cruz’s Tahoe entered the parking lot.

As Cruz began driving forward, Valadez fired three shots at Cruz, and Reyes immediately thereafter fired five additional shots at him. The officers continued shooting after the Tahoe had driven past Reyes. Reyes testified that she could see Cruz’s profile as he drove past her. Reyes called out over the radio, “Shots fired by police, shots fired by police.” Cruz died as a result of a gunshot wound.

Approximately ninety seconds elapsed from the time the initial shots were fired from Cruz’s Tahoe until Cruz was shot, roughly sixteen of which elapsed during the encounter in the parking lot. Surveillance footage shows that pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles were in the area within twenty minutes of the incident.

Ybarra, Cruz’s mother and administrator for his estate, filed suit, bringing claims against the officers for excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and against the officers and the City of Chicago for wrongful death under Illinois law. The district court entered summary judgment for the defendants, holding that although there was a fact dispute as to whether the officers had acted reasonably in self-defense, they had acted reasonably in using deadly force against Cruz to protect others in the immediate vicinity by preventing his escape. Ybarra now appeals.

  1. Court’s Analysis

The Court began its analysis of the case by explaining that an officer’s use of deadly force against an individual constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and therefore must be reasonable. The Court noted that a suspect has a constitutional right to not be shot by a police officer unless the officer reasonably believes that the suspect poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or to others in the immediate area. The Court then explained that there are also some circumstances where an officer may use deadly force against a suspect to prevent the suspect’s escape. In this regard, the Court explained that an officer may use deadly force to prevent escape where a suspect has threatened an officer with a weapon or where there is probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious harm. The Court then added that under this scenario an officer should give a warning if feasible. Narrowing its focus, the Court then specified that outrageously reckless driving which poses a grave public safety risk can warrant an officer’s use of deadly force under some circumstances.

With these principles in mind, the Court turned its attention to the facts of the case and highlighted those facts which supported the officers’ reasonable conclusion that Cruz presented a grave public safety risk. Initially, someone in Cruz’s vehicle had fired five shots at another vehicle and then after this occurred Cruz’s vehicle sped through the streets at roughly twice the speed limit before crashing into multiple cars with significant force. The Court then noted that when Commander Valadez pulled in behind Cruz’s vehicle, Cruz backed his car directly into the door where Commander Valadez was trying to exit with enough force to rock the whole car and cause Officer Reyes to believe that Commander Valadez may have been seriously injured.

The Court next explained that as the officers followed Cruz’s car into the parking lot, the officers reasonably believed the following: that there was still at least one gun inside of Cruz’s vehicle, that Cruz could access the gun, and that the occupants of the vehicle could be armed and dangerous. The Court further emphasized that the officers were presented with a particular dangerous situation because they could not see inside of the vehicle due to the vehicle’s dark tinted windows. Moreover, the Court stressed that officers’ encounter with Cruz in the parking lot where he was shot occurred within a sixteen second timeframe. The Court reasoned that the officers had only seconds to formulate a response and that response was informed by the violent acts—shots fired from Cruz’s vehicle—which the officers had observed ninety seconds before.

The Court also explained that it was reasonable for the officers to believe that Cruz would know that the officers were police and not members of another gang. The Court stated that the parking lot where the shooting occurred was pretty well lit and that the officers had on duty belts and bulletproof vests with their police stars displayed. The Court also noted that the officers were illuminated by Cruz’s headlights and that one of the occupants in Cruz’s vehicle testified that he knew Commander Valadez was a police officer because he could see his vest. The Court additionally emphasized that Commander Valadez provided unrebutted testimony that he identified himself as a police officer when he initially exited his vehicle.

Next, the Court reiterated that officers must, where feasible, give some warning before using deadly force to prevent escape. In this case, the Court stated that there was undisputed evidence that officers provided such a warning to Cruz. The Court detailed that Officer Reyes could be heard on her radio yelling at Cruz to “stop the vehicle.” The Court then explained that there is no requirement that every officer on the scene yell duplicative commands.

Given all of these facts, the Court concluded that when Cruz did not stop and continued driving in Officer Reyes’ direction, the officers had probable cause, based on the drive-by shooting and the reckless driving, to believe that Cruz posed a threat of serious physical harm to others in the vicinity if he was not apprehended. The Court highlighted that surveillance footage showed other pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists in the area around the time of the shooting.

The Court then concluded that regardless of whether the officers reasonably believed that Cruz posed a direct threat to their own safety, there was no genuine dispute of material fact that both officers acted reasonably in using deadly force to prevent Cruz’s escape in order to protect others in the immediate vicinity. The Court stated that officers need not be directly in the path of a threat in order to reasonably use deadly force. Instead, “Deadly force may be exercised if the suspect’s actions place the officer, his partner, or those in the immediate vicinity in imminent danger of death or seriously bodily injury.” The Court further clarified that the officers’ use of deadly force to preclude escape continued to be reasonable even as Cruz continued driving past the officers.

For these reasons, the Court held that the officers’ use of deadly force against Cruz was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and upheld the ruling of summary judgment in favor of the officers.

[i] Ybarra v. City of Chicago, 946 F.3d 975 (7th Cir. 2020).

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