Too Much Evidence Against Oakland Cops

There is no question that Oakland police officers Omar Daza-Quiroz and Eriberto Perez-Angeles shot and killed 37-year-old barber Derrick Jones.  They claimed he dropped a digital scale as he was running away from them. They claimed they thought it was a weapon, so they shot and killed him.

Four witnesses to the killing saw nothing in Jones’ hands, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume the cops believe what they claim. So what?

Don’t try to make sense of it. It doesn’t make any sense. Dropping an object, even one mistakenly believed to be a weapon, does not give rise to a reason to kill under any twisted logic.  But then, Jones wasn’t the first person these cops killed. Nor was this the first time these cops were the targets of complaints for misconduct and excessive force. Most would see this as a problem for the cops, but as it turns out, it may prove to be their salvation.

From the East Bay Express :

In addition, records show that there have been 74 use-of-force complaints lodged against Daza-Quiroz alone. There’s also evidence that the Oakland Police Department, because of its failure to live up to court-mandated reforms, neglected to properly track the two officers. Nonetheless, a federal judge ruled last weekend that jurors in a civil trial involving the Jones shooting must not learn about the officers’ troubled histories or know of the department’s failure to correct their behavior.

Were their rights violated in every instance, thus providing some compelling reason to preclude this massive evidence of misconduct?  Not exactly.
In her ruling, US District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers stated that showing the jurors the seven hundred pages of internal affairs complaints filed against Daza-Quiroz and Perez-Angeles would require a “tremendous expenditure of time.” The judge added that it “would essentially require mini-trials” for each complaint against the two cops, and could be “incomplete, confusing, and misleading.”

There’s just too much.  It would take forever, and who has the time to spend on a trial working over incident of excessive force after incident. Wrap it up guys, we’ve got people to convict, and we can’t waste a courtroom forever on cops.

The problem of a “trial within a trial” refers to allegations of misconduct which the officers deny, and would thus have to be proven, as if the cops were on trial for the collateral conduct within a trial for the primary cause of action for killing Jones.  It’s a problem in that it can tend to cause a jury to confuse the issues of liability for the action before them with liability for the acts of past violence. But it can also be kept under control with appropriate instructions.

Bear in mind, this is a civil action for damages for the death of Derrick Jones, not a criminal prosecution for his killing. The relative rights and constitutional concerns are very different, though a skeptic might think that the only real difference is that the defendants before Judge Rogers are police.  If this were a criminal prosecution, and the defendants weren’t cops, somehow the court would either find the time or figure out an alternative. Courts usually do.

The problem created by this ruling for the plaintiff is that they’ve pursued their case based not only on the killing of Jones, but the conduct of the two officers and the Oakland police department’s apparent refusal to either address the problem of excessive force within its ranks and comply with a decades-old consent degree to clean up the Oakland police.

Before Gonzales Rogers’ ruling this past weekend, Jenkins-Toney had based a substantial portion of her case on the theory that Jones’ death was “an unlawful shooting by two officers that have a high rate of using force during their contacts with the public during their relatively brief stint with the Oakland Police Department.” Perez-Angeles joined OPD in 2007, while Daza-Quiroz signed up a year earlier. The two officers were also involved in the fatal shooting of Leslie Allen during a car chase in 2008, and Perez-Angeles was part of the Tango Teams at the center of OPD’s crackdown on Occupy Oakland protesters in late 2011 and early 2012.

You’ve got to admit, that’s an awful lot of wrong for two cops who came onto the force within the last five or so years. Most cops go their entire career not drawing their weapon. These guys not only drew their weapons, but ended up wrongfully killing two people in their first few years on the job. It’s almost inconceivable that these officers could have racked up so many use of force complaints and killings so quickly, but it’s even more incredible that this ends up working to their advantage.

Of course, there is a fairly obvious alternative to address the concerns about the length of time it would take to present this evidence. The judge could have limited the plaintiffs to introducing, say, five or ten incidents rather than every incident. While that still would deny the jury the flavor of how violent, how out of control these officers were, and how their violence was tolerated, if not embraced, by the Oakland police, at least it would have allowed the plaintiff to make their case.  And it wouldn’t have given the cops a free pass on prior violence merely because there was too much of it.

But Gonzales Rogers ruled that jurors will hear nothing of OPD’s failure to revamp their procedures for dealing with problem officers, the Allen shooting, or the numerous internal affairs complaints against both officers. The judge also decided that documents from OPD’s federal oversight would be too confusing for a jury without expert testimony to explain their meaning, and under the terms of the consent decree, could not be used to prove liability in other lawsuits. “[T]he Court finds that admission of the Riders case documents would be more prejudicial than probative …. Admitting the documents alone, without any context or explanation of their meaning by any witness, has the strong potential to confuse and mislead the jury ….”

After all, nobody wants a jury to be confused or misled to think that the police aren’t doing a great job protecting and serving. And killing.  So rather than pare down the voluminous evidence of violence, the historic evidence of neglect, to a manageable level that serves to provide the jury with the background of the officers and the police department’s ignoring the “red flags” of their violence and potential for violence, let the jurors hear nothing.  That’s the solution when there’s just too much evidence against cops.

7 comments on “Too Much Evidence Against Oakland Cops

  1. Tom

    I think this requires an interlocutory appeal to the 9th Circuit. I’d love to hear what Judge K has to say about this.

  2. SHG

    And when they finally get to trial, ten years later…This really should be appealed, but between the time and draw on the panel, well.

  3. Nigel Declan

    There’s a part of me that wonders whether, if this case proceeds without introduction of past behaviour and gets appealed, the government will argue that, per Connick, the plaintiffs failed to establish an adequate pattern to show negligence in terms of training or supervision. If so, I would not be surprised if the USSC, demonstrating its usual deference to the 9th Circuit, decided that Connick still applied and the plaintiffs didn’t meet their burden to establish a history of similar conduct, even if the failure to prove a pattern of conduct is a direct consequence of the trial judge’s preclusion of evidence based on the highly subjective question of prejudicial vs. probative value.

  4. David

    “The judge could have limited the plaintiffs to introducing, say, five or ten incidents rather than every incident.”

    I think I can see a flaw in your reasoning: this would require effort on the part of Judge Rogers.

  5. office manager

    What the plaintiff’s attorney should have done at this point. Is stand up and announce to the public and the judge that based on the judges criminal conduct that they will not have any part in a whitewashing kangaroo court and then simply walk out and then make sure to let the media know exactly what the judge did. With examples of other cases where the judge made sure all the documentation came in no matter how much time it took.

  6. SHG

    Only a non-lawyer could think that a moment of grandstanding is more important than doing everything possible for the client, even in the face of a bad ruling. This isn’t a game.

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