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Crawford v. City of Bakersfield

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

December 16, 2019

Leslie Laray Crawford, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
City of Bakersfield, a municipal entity, and Aaron Stringer, Officer, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted February 6, 2019 San Francisco, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, No. 1:14-cv-01735-SAB Stanley Albert Boone, Magistrate Judge, Presiding

          Emily T. Kuwahara (argued), Daniel P. Wierzba, Joel Mallord, and Alice Hall-Partyka, Crowell & Moring LLP, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Michael G. Marderosian (argued) and Heather S. Cohen, Marderosian & Cohen, Fresno, California, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: Sidney R. Thomas, Chief Judge, Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judge, and Gary Feinerman, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY[**]

         Civil Rights

         The panel vacated the district court's judgment in favor of defendants following a jury trial in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law arising from a police officer's fatal shooting of plaintiff's son, Michael Dozer.

         Plaintiff alleged that the district court abused its discretion in excluding as irrelevant her testimony about her percipient observations of Dozer's past behavior, which she offered to prove that police officer Stringer should have recognized that Dozer was exhibiting signs of mental illness at the time of their encounter and therefore that the shooting was unreasonable.

         The panel held that the district court abused its discretion in holding that plaintiff's proposed testimony was irrelevant because Stringer, at the time of the shooting, did not know about the past events to which plaintiff would have testified. The panel noted that whether a suspect has exhibited signs of mental illness is one of the factors a court will consider in assessing the reasonableness of the force used. The panel held that plaintiff's testimony regarding Dozer's past behavior and treatment was relevant to whether he would have appeared to be mentally ill on the day of the shooting, and therefore whether Stringer knew or should have known that Dozer was mentally ill.

         The panel rejected defendants' argument that plaintiff's testimony was an improper lay opinion under Rule 701 because she lacked the expertise to offer a psychological or psychiatric diagnosis. The panel held that so long as plaintiff stopped short of opining that Dozer had a mental illness, she was competent to testify about her own observations of and experiences with her Dozer.

         The panel held that the district court's error in excluding plaintiff's testimony undercut her ability to prove a "central component" of her case: that a reasonable officer in defendant's position would have recognized that Dozer was mentally ill. The panel concluded that the evidentiary error was not harmless, and that a new trial was warranted.

          OPINION

          FEINERMAN, DISTRICT JUDGE:

         Leslie Crawford sued the City of Bakersfield, California and Bakersfield police officer Aaron Stringer (together, "Defendants"), bringing 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims arising from Stringer's fatal shooting of Crawford's son, Michael Dozer. After a three-day trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding that Stringer did not use excessive force or act negligently, and the district court entered judgment for Defendants. Crawford appeals, contending that the district court abused its discretion in excluding as irrelevant her testimony about her percipient observations of Dozer's past behavior, which she offered to prove that Stringer should have recognized that Dozer was exhibiting signs of mental illness at the time of their encounter and therefore that the shooting was unreasonable. We vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial.

         Background

         Stringer, an on-duty police officer with the Bakersfield Police Department, shot and killed Dozer at a gas station while responding to calls reporting that Dozer "had poured gasoline on a woman and tried to light her on fire." Crawford brought this suit on her own behalf and as Dozer's successor in interest, alleging Fourth Amendment excessive force claims under § 1983 and state law wrongful death claims.

         A. The Shooting

         At around 12:30 p.m. on August 6, 2014, Elsa Torres was filling up her tank at a gas station. Dozer approached Torres's vehicle and removed the gas nozzle from the tank, spraying some gas on her in the process. Dozer then sprayed gas onto the ground around himself and set it on fire, creating a flame that Torres said went "maybe up to his knees." Dozer also took off some of his clothes. Torres drove away, called 911, and told the operator that there was a man "trying to burn us." While Torres was waiting for the police to arrive, she saw Dozer go over to the area outside a nearby minimart and start "knocking all the stuff down, like the newspaper stands and stuff."

         Stringer was on patrol alone when he received a call through dispatch that "a subject at the gas station . . . had poured gasoline on a woman and tried to light her on fire" and that the woman's children were in her car. While Stringer was on his way to the gas station, he received a second call indicating that a woman "had been lit on fire and that she put it out and left the scene." It took Stringer "[m]aybe a couple of minutes" to get to the gas station.

         When Stringer arrived, he spoke with Torres, who by that point was standing about fifty feet from Dozer. Stringer did not observe on Torres any signs of burns, bruising, or other physical injury, nor did Torres say that she had been burned. Stringer spoke with another witness, who said that Dozer had poured gasoline on Torres but who did not report that anyone had been injured.

         Stringer testified that by the time Torres identified Dozer, Dozer had moved away from the gas pumps and toward the minimart. The closest people to Dozer were twenty feet away. As far as Stringer could see, Dozer did not have any gasoline or incendiary liquids and was not assaulting anyone, but instead was merely "pacing around" the area, looking "very agitated." Stringer thought that Dozer's behavior was "erratic" and "aggressive in general," but not aggressive toward Stringer in particular. Another person at the scene, Rosalie Montiel, testified that Dozer was "walking back and forth" and "looked unapproachable," but that she did not see him threatening anyone. Carlos Cabrera, who was also at the scene, testified that Dozer was shouting, hitting a table with his hands, standing up, and sitting back down repeatedly-"kind of going around in circles." Cabrera also recounted that Dozer was staring at people and saying "odd things."

         When Stringer approached Dozer, he did not think Dozer was actively committing any crime while pacing around the area near the minimart. Stringer did, however, consider "the crime of assault with a caustic chemical" against Torres to still be "in progress" because it "had just occurred seconds . . . or minutes" before. Stringer testified that he had not drawn a weapon at that point and had no intention of using force, and that he merely wanted to talk ...


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