Officer who fired 18 shots & head-stomped suspect can be tried for excessive force – court
The ruling relates to a 2013 incident involving Orange County sheriff's deputies who answered a call in the city of Laguna Niguel. Connor Zion, 21, had suffered seizures, bit his mother, and cut his mother and a roommate with a kitchen knife, according to court documents cited by the Los Angeles Times.
When Deputy Juan Lopez arrived at the scene, Zion ran toward him and stabbed Lopez's arms twice while shouting "I'll kill you," according to the Orange County Register. Lopez fell to the ground and kicked Zion to keep him away.
Deputy Michael Higgins responded by firing nine shots at Zion, who fell on the ground but was still alive. Once the suspect was on the ground, Higgins fired nine more shots, emptying his gun, according to the Orange County Register.
Higgins then walked in a circle, took a "running start," and stomped on Zion’s head three times.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Alex Kozinski said that "when police confront a suspect who poses an immediate threat, they may use deadly force against him. But they must stop using deadly force when the suspect no longer poses a threat."
The court added that Zion appeared to have been wounded and was not making any threatening gestures after being fired upon at "relatively close range" and falling to the ground.
“While Higgins couldn’t be sure that Zion wasn’t bluffing or only temporarily subdued, Zion was lying on the ground and so was not in a position where he could easily harm anyone or flee,” Kozinski wrote.
The court added that a jury could find that Zion did not pose an immediate threat and that Higgins should have held his fire or that “a jury could find that the second round of bullets was justified, but not the head-stomping," Kozinski wrote.
The OC Sheriff's Department has defended Higgins' actions, saying that Zion remained a threat while on the ground because he was still moving. It previously awarded the deputy a medal of valor for saving his partner's life, according to the Register.
“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," the Sheriff's Department said in a statement. A report by the district attorney also called Higgins' actions "reasonable and justified."
However, Kozinski made clear that "terminating a threat doesn't necessarily mean terminating the suspect." The court noted that if a suspect is on the ground and appears to be wounded, “a reasonable officer would reassess the situation rather than continue shooting." It added that the US Constitution protects against "brutal" conduct such as head stomping, noting that the impact to Zion's head appeared to be "vicious blows."