Houston Team Wins Reversal, Judgment For Police Officer In Fatal Shooting Case
Houston, Texas (November 17, 2023) - Lewis Brisbois Partners William S. Helfand and Norman Ray Giles convinced the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reverse a district court and grant judgment for a Galveston police officer in a lawsuit over a fatal 2018 officer-involved shooting, with the appeals court finding that the officer’s actions did not violate clearly established law and he is therefore entitled to qualified immunity.
The Underlying Facts
On June 25, 2018, Lewis Brisbois’ client, Galveston Police Officer Derrick Jaradi, and Jaradi’s partner were on duty in a marked police patrol vehicle when they witnessed the decedent, Luis Argueta, near a suspected prostitute at a convenience store. Argueta then got into his vehicle and left the parking lot. While patrolling the surrounding area, Officer Jaradi located Argueta’s vehicle in an alleyway and attempted to initiate a traffic stop after the vehicle drove off without its headlights or taillights on and rolled through several stop signs.
However, Argueta continued driving for roughly two blocks before pulling over and fled on foot into a nearby vacant lot. Argueta kept his right arm pressed against his side, making Officer Jaradi concerned that he couldn’t react with his handgun in time to stop an attack. Officer Jaradi fired two shots at Argueta, causing him to fall to the ground. Bodycam footage showed that Argueta had a pistol with an extended magazine in his right hand. Officer Jaradi and his partner administered medical aid until paramedics arrived, but Argueta later died of his injuries.
In June 2020, Argueta’s parents and siblings filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Officer Jaradi, on behalf of themselves and Argueta’s estate, claiming the officer violated Argueta’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Following discovery, Officer Jaradi moved for summary judgment, arguing that he is entitled to qualified immunity because his conduct was objectively reasonable and did not violate clearly established law. In a November 2022 decision, a Texas federal district judge denied the motion, finding genuine disputes of material fact surrounding the circumstances of the shooting. Officer Jaradi filed an interlocutory appeal.
The Fifth Circuit’s Opinion
In the Nov. 17 opinion, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit addressed each of the fact disputes found by the lower court in turn, beginning with whether Officer Jaradi could see that Argueta was holding a weapon.
The panel emphasized that the video evidence showed that Argueta’s movements after fleeing his vehicle were not consistent with a normal running motion: “Rather than swing both of his arms, as one naturally does when running, Argueta swung only his left arm, keeping his right arm purposefully and unnaturally pressed along his right side and out of sight as he ran away.” Argueta, the panel said, was “armed with a high-capacity semiautomatic weapon, which he kept out of view as he fled, and needed only a slight turn to begin firing on the officers from close range.”
“We therefore conclude that, even taking the facts in the light most favorable to Argueta — that the gun was not visible to Jaradi when Jaradi fired — this fact question is immaterial because Argueta’s clutching his right arm to his side as he fled police confrontation was a furtive gesture akin to reaching for a waistband,” the opinion stated.
Given its holding on this point, the Fifth Circuit panel said Jaradi’s conclusion that “Argueta posed an immediate danger was not unreasonable.”
The district court had also found a material fact dispute as to whether “Argueta raised the gun or otherwise made a threatening motion towards the officers.” The appeals panel, however, said that even if Argueta never raised his gun and the gun remained “completely concealed from the moment he exited the vehicle until after he was shot, that fact is immaterial: Argueta did not need to raise (or even show) his gun or make a threatening motion towards the officers because, by suspiciously concealing his right arm as he fled in a way that objectively suggested he was armed and dangerous, he engaged in a furtive gesture justifying deadly force.”
Finally, the panel analyzed the materiality of the last fact dispute identified by the lower court: “whether either officer warned Argueta before firing.” Even accepting as true the lawsuit’s contention that Argueta received no warning, though, the panel said there is no “clearly established law holding that a furtive gesture signaling an immediate threat to officers followed by deadly force without warning constitutes a violation of the suspect’s federal rights.” Therefore, whether Officer Jaradi issued a warning to Argueta before firing is immaterial, the opinion said.
“In sum, we hold that Argueta has failed to establish “beyond debate” that Jaradi violated a clearly established federal right,” the opinion concluded.
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