Editor's Note: A longer version of this article appeared on BehindtheBadge.com. It was written by Greg Hardesty with a running narrative by Sgt. Daron Wyatt. The following version was condensed by David Griffith with permission. To read the full version, go to https://behindthebadge.com/vindicated-sergeant-reflects-on-post-shooting-court-ordeal-that-broke-his-back-spirit.
Just after 2 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2009, Sgt. Daron Wyatt and Officer Matt Ellis of the Anaheim (CA) Police Department were responding to a check-the-welfare call regarding a subject sleeping in the center divider of a busy street.
While en route, a minivan cut them off and almost hit their patrol vehicle. Then it turned into a gas station. Wyatt and Ellis considered stopping the van immediately, but decided to continue on the call.
Their decision was guided by two factors:
• The check-the-welfare call had a potential life safety issue should the subject roll into traffic and be hit by a car, and
• They didn't want another unit to have to handle a call in their area.
Wyatt entered the van's license plate into the MDT. And the two Anaheim officers continued to the call.
Arriving on scene, they found no one there. So they decided to head back to the gas station and check out the van. En route, the computer returned critical information on the van. It had been involved in an arrest for felony possession of methamphetamine about a year earlier.
Making the Stop
At the gas station, they saw that the van was still in the parking lot and a Hispanic man with a shaved head and dressed in loose baggy clothing was standing outside.
Wyatt read the prior arrest report and recognized the name of the arrestee from his time serving on the gangs and narcotics unit of a neighboring agency.
The officers parked around the corner where they could watch the van and follow it when it left. When the van drove away, it was weaving within its lane. The officers decided to make a stop and lit up the van.
The van kept driving a little longer, but didn't seem to be trying to evade. The driver then made a turn onto a small residential side street. As the van pulled to a halt, Wyatt could see through the rear window that the driver was steering with his left hand while reaching toward the back seat with his right.
Wyatt was out of the patrol car quickly. Approaching the van from the passenger side, he could see that not only was the driver still reaching back with his right hand, but he was also looking over his left shoulder as if he was watching for an officer to approach on the driver's side.
The hair on the back of Wyatt's neck stood up. He drew his duty pistol and yelled something to the effect of, "If you reach down there again, I'm going to shoot you!"
Wyatt saw the driver's hand move up toward his lap. Officer Ellis was at the driver's window, and Wyatt heard him tell the driver to turn the car off and show his hands.
The driver refused to open his right hand, and was reaching around with his left. Both the driver and front passenger windows were down about halfway. Wyatt watched as Officer Ellis tried to open the driver's door, but couldn't. Wyatt opened the passenger door and a bottle rolled out.
The driver still refused to obey the officers' commands and said nothing. He was a big guy (6 feet tall and 253 pounds) and had gang tattoos across his knuckles.
Wyatt struck the driver's right elbow three times with his flashlight and ordered him to open his hand. The man suddenly moved his right hand up to his mouth and threw something, presumably drugs, into his mouth.
Ellis reached through the driver's window with both arms. To Wyatt, it looked like the driver was striking toward Ellis' face with his hands and fists. He called for backup and moved to assist. He knelt on the front passenger seat and punched the driver in the face and head five or six times while yelling at him to stop fighting.
The driver slammed the car into drive while simultaneously stomping on the gas pedal. The tires squealed and the van lurched forward, slamming the passenger door shut and trapping Wyatt inside. "The van accelerated rapidly northbound on the small residential street and about 600 feet ahead was a T-intersection. Wyatt had three immediate thoughts: "I'm going to die. I didn't get a chance to hug my wife and kids before I left for work. I must win this fight!"
Wyatt tried to knock the gear shift out of drive, but the driver batted his hand away. "I decided the only way to save my life was to immediately stop the driver's actions and the only way to do that was by completely and immediately incapacitating him. I drew my gun and shot the driver in the head. He slumped to the left," he says
Wyatt now needed to take control of the van. The only way he could slow or stop the vehicle was to crash it. He steered the driver's side of the van into a pickup that was parked at the west curb. The impact threw him into the dashboard and knocked the gun out of his hand.
The van bounced off the pickup, rolled about 40 feet, and came to a stop. Wyatt jumped out and saw Ellis running to help. He yelled to his fellow officer that he had lost his gun in the crash and it was still in the van. "My gun was later found under a pile of trash on the front passenger's floorboard," he says.
Wyatt put out a 998 call (officer involved in a shooting) over the radio and requested medics.
Investigation revealed the deceased suspect was Adolph Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez, a 21-year-old parolee. He was an active gang member and was in possession of a sales quantity of methamphetamine. Investigators also discovered there was a knife in the driver's door pocket where the suspect had been reaching.
During the incident, Wyatt suffered a back injury that resulted in six spine surgeries and he had to fight to retain full-duty status. "I've had three spinal fusions, have a spinal cord stimulator implanted, and will take medication likely for the rest of my life," he says.
Motions and Maneuvers
Civil lawsuits were filed by multiple members of the deceased suspect's family. The cases were consolidated.
In August 2011, the Plaintiff's attorney filed suit in state court. In May 2013, a motion for summary judgment (MSJ) was heard by the 9th Circuit, and in a 2-1 decision, the MSJ was upheld.
In August 2013, the 4th District Court of Appeals dismissed the suit in state court, largely due to the 9th Circuit's upholding of the MSJ. The Plaintiff allowed the 4th Circuit Court's decision to become final, which legally should have ended the state suit. But it didn't.
In December 2013, in a rare move, the 9th Circuit Court granted the Plaintiff an En Banc hearing before an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit.
During the initial phases of the hearing, it sounded like the Court was heavily supportive of the MSJ, with four Justices arguing that all of Wyatt's actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Things took a turn, however, when a justice suggested there were several other alternatives available to the sergeant, including using a TASER and shooting the decedent someplace other than the head.
Ultimately, in March 2014, the En Banc panel of the 9th Circuit upheld all findings in the MSJ, except the deadly force, and ruled 7-4 that the issue as to whether or not Wyatt's use of deadly force was excessive or unreasonable should be decided by a jury.
Based on the prior rulings, the City of Anaheim decided to appeal the 9th Circuit's En Banc reversal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Amicus briefs were filed supporting the City's position by the International Municipal Lawyer's Association and the California State Association of Counties. However, in November 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case and sent it back to the District Court for trial.
Another critical piece of the puzzle was the California Supreme Court decision in 2013 in Hayes v County of San Diego, in which the court determined a police officer's conduct and tactical considerations could be used in determining the reasonableness of deadly force. The Hayes case had not been decided at the time of the shooting, but it could be applied because the civil litigation had not reached conclusion.
In April 2015, the Plaintiffs filed again in state court. The case was quickly dismissed, but was appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal, the court that had upheld the dismissal two years earlier.
In late 2017, the case was argued in front of the 4th District Court. The Plaintiff's counsel argued that because the District Court relied on the original 9th Circuit decision upholding the summary judgment and the En Banc panel had reversed, the 4th District Court should allow the State case to move forward.
The Plaintiff had never asked for a stay pending the En Banc and had allowed the judgment to become final, so as a matter of law, the case should have been done. But in another rare move, the 4th District Court of Appeal reinstated the case in State court.
On July 15, 2019, the case began in Department C15 of the Orange County Superior Court.
The judge excluded Gonzalez' criminal history, parole status, gang membership, toxicology, amount of narcotics found, and the presence of the knife in the driver's door panel. "The judge went so far as to rule that I couldn't even talk about the tattoos I saw on Gonzalez' knuckles, stating that the information was outweighed by its prejudicial nature," Wyatt says.
The Defense was also not allowed to talk about the sales quantity of meth, the scale, and the baggies found. The jury was led to believe Gonzalez only had a very small amount of an unknown drug. And because the Defense was not allowed to identify Gonzalez as an active gang member, the Plaintiff's counsel was able to argue he was a "poor kid whose brains were blown out."
The Defense rested on the afternoon of July 30. The next day was taken up by jury instructions and closing arguments. The Plaintiff's counsel suggested in closing arguments that Gonzalez was just trying to get away from two officers who were unnecessarily beating him up.
The Plaintiff's attorney also said the entire series of events was driven by police actions, not the reverse, and that it was Wyatt's negligence that sent the situation spiraling out of control, not Gonzalez' refusal to comply.
The Defense counsel explained in his closing how the simple act of compliance at any stage of the contact would have resulted in a much different outcome, and it was Gonzalez' actions that caused his own death.
On rebuttal, the Plaintiff's counsel repeatedly called Gonzalez a "poor kid" and then told the jury there are way too many police shootings in America and that they should hold the police accountable.
Awaiting the verdict was not easy on Wyatt, but when it was announced the jury had reached a decision, he felt at peace. "I'd spent the past few nights reminding myself that I was alive because of my actions, and no matter what the jury decided, I knew I did the right thing," Wyatt says.
There were multiple questions on the verdict form and the form was several pages long. What questions got answered depended on the answers to prior questions. The jury answered two.
Question 1. Did Officer Daron Wyatt use excessive or unreasonable deadly force on Anthony Gonzalez?
Question 4. Was Officer Daron Wyatt negligent?
And with that the trial was over. And lawsuit ended.
"The only thing that could have been better was a unanimous decision, but the verdict was in our favor," Wyatt says. The verdict was 10-2, with two jurors not agreeing with the rest.
Several jurors thanked Wyatt and Ellis for their service. "One alternate gave me and my wife a big hug and said they had prayed about the case all night long," Wyatt says.
He sums up the experience saying, "I was a hard-working proactive cop up until the 9th Circuit's En Banc reversal. After listening to the oral arguments and how some of the judges openly second guessed every move we made, even after being reminded the U.S. Supreme Court said they shouldn't do so, it completely changed me. Before, I would see a crook in the field, set target lock, and go get them. While enduring this nightmare, not so much.
"But, in the end, the system worked. I don't know that I will ever be able to police the same as I did before, but now I can rest easy in the knowledge that my name has been cleared and I can retire in peace."
Wyatt plans to retire from his 33-year law enforcement career at the end of 2019.