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Samantha Lopez, et al v. In Limine Shawn Aitken

February 18, 2011

SAMANTHA LOPEZ, ET AL.,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
IN LIMINE SHAWN AITKEN, JACOB PAVLENKO, (DOC. NOS. 121--36) JONATHAN FECTEAU, ARACELI GOCOBACHI, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Janis L. SammartinoUnited States District Judge

ORDER ON PARTIES' MOTIONS AND RELATED CROSSCLAIMS

Presently before the court are sixteen motions in limine: five filed by Plaintiff Samantha Lopez, three filed by Defendant--Cross-claimant Araceli Gocobachi (Cross-claimant), and eight filed by Defendants. Having considered the parties arguments and the law, the Court hereby rules as follows.

PLAINTIFF'S AND CROSS-CLAIMANT'S MOTIONS IN LIMINE

1. Plaintiff's Motion to Admit Evidence of Previous Shooting Incident (Doc. No. 125)

Plaintiff moves to admit evidence of a previous shooting incident in which Defendant Shawn Aitken, in his official capacity, properly used deadly force against a suspect. Plaintiff contends that this evidence is "relevant and highly probative" because it demonstrates Defendant Aitken's "knowledge of proper safety procedures in situations involving the use of deadly force, and his ability to act in accordance with those safety procedures." (Doc. No. 125, at 2.)

Defendants contend that Defendant Aitken's prior shooting was "dissimilar," and that evidence regarding it is therefore "irrelevant and inadmissible under" Federal Rules of Evidence 402, 403, and 404(b). (Doc. No. 138, at 2.) According to Defendants, this evidence also "will unnecessarily lengthen the trial." (Id.)

The issues to be resolved in this case are (1) whether, objectively, Defendants' use of force was excessive, and (2) whether Defendants acted unreasonably in their use of force. (See Doc. No. 108, at 7--8, 17--18.) Defendant Aitken's past conduct does not bear on these issues. See Gates v. Rivera, 993 F.2d 697, 700 (9th Cir. 1993).

Further, the probative value of Defendant Aitken's prior shooting incident, as it pertains to Defendant Aitken's knowledge of, and ability to comply with, proper safety procedures in situations involving the use of deadly force, is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, and undue delay. Fed. R. Evid. 403. Plaintiff may establish Defendant Aitken's competency through pertinent direct evidence of his education, training, and knowledge regarding the use of force. Accordingly, this motion is DENIED.*fn1

2. Plaintiff's and Cross-claimant's Motions to Exclude Evidence of Mr. Lopez's Intoxication (Doc. Nos. 126, 133)

Plaintiff and Cross-claimant move to exclude evidence of a post-mortem toxicology report to prove that Mr. Lopez had a measurable amount of methamphetamine in his blood. Plaintiff contends that evidence of Mr. Lopez's intoxication "would not go towards proving any material element of the defense" and would only result in unfair prejudice. (Doc. No. 133, at 4 (citing Fed. R. Evid. 403).) Plaintiff also contends that evidence of Mr. Lopez's intoxication amounts to inadmissible character evidence. (Id.)

Evidence of Mr. Lopez's intoxication is relevant and admissible because it tends to make the existence of a fact of consequence more or less probable. Fed. R. Evid. 401, 402. Specifically, evidence of Mr. Lopez's intoxication substantiates Defendants' assertions that Mr. Lopez was acting irrationally and unpredictably at the time of the incident, and their claims that Mr. Lopez resisted arrest. See Boyd v. City & Cnty. of S.F., 576 F.3d 938, 944 (9th Cir. 2009) (holding, in excessive force case, that evidence that decedent was on drugs was relevant because it made assertions that decedent was acting erratically more probable); T.D.W. v. Riverside Cnty., 2010 WL 1006618, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 11, 2010) (holding, in excessive force case, that evidence of decedent's intoxication was properly admitted at trial "because this evidence was probative of decedent's conduct, particularly when defendants contended that decedent's erratic behavior immediately proceeding and at the time of the shooting led to their use of force"); Doc. No. 55-4 (Aitken Decl.) ¶¶ 7--9. In turn, these facts bear on whether, objectively, Defendants' use of force was excessive or unreasonable. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989) ("The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." (emphasis added)) .

Further, Plaintiff's characterization of evidence of Mr. Lopez's intoxication as inadmissible "character evidence" lacks merit. Defendants do not seek to introduce evidence of past instances of intoxication "in order to show action in conformity therewith." Fed. R. Evid. 404(b). Rather, Defendants seek to introduce evidence of Mr. Lopez's intoxication at the time of the incident. This evidence is relevant and admissible. Accordingly, these motions are DENIED.

3. Plaintiff's Motion to Exclude Evidence of Mr. Lopez's Gang Affiliation (Doc. No. 134)

Plaintiff moves to exclude evidence of Mr. Lopez's gang affiliation, to wit, the Vista Home Boys. According to Plaintiff, "[t]here is no evidence that the defendants knew of any gang affiliation when Cross-claimant encountered, struggled with, shot, and killed [Mr.] Lopez"; and accordingly, evidence of Mr. Lopez's gang affiliation is irrelevant and constitutes inadmissible character evidence. (Doc. No. 134, at 4.)

Defendants contend that evidence of Mr. Lopez's gang affiliation "explain[s] Mr. Lopez'[s] intent to kill the deputies or himself and why he fought them so ferociously." (Doc. No. 142, at 2.) Apparently, the inference Defendants propose to ask the jury to draw is that Mr. Lopez's gang affiliation made him more likely to violently resist arrest. However, Defendants offer no evidence regarding the nature of the Vista Home Boys or the activities its members engaged in. Thus, the probative value of Mr. Lopez's gang affiliation is marginal, at best.

Defendants also contend that Mr. Lopez's gang affiliation is relevant to Plaintiff's and Cross-claimant's claims for general damages. (Id.) Defendants propose to ask the jury to infer that because of his gang affiliation, Mr. Lopez would have "habitually violated parole," leaving him unavailable to visit Plaintiff or Cross-claimant (id.), and would have suffered reduced earning capacity even if he did not reoffend (id. at 3). As above, however, Defendants offer no evidence to support these inferences. And even if Defendants did, the Court would find any relevance of gang affiliation evidence substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Fed. R. Evid. 403. Accordingly, this motion is GRANTED.

4. Plaintiff's Motion to Exclude Evidence of Prior Instances of Domestic Violence (Doc. No. 135)

Plaintiff moves to exclude evidence of prior incidents of domestic violence involving Mr. Lopez and Cross-claimant. According to Plaintiff, evidence of prior instances of domestic violence is not relevant to whether Defendants used excessive force and would only prejudice the jury. (Doc. No. 135, at 6.)

Defendants contend that this evidence pertains to Cross-claimant's damages claims for loss of society and companionship. (Doc. No. 139, at 5.) "[A]s a result of the domestic violence and consequent restraining orders obtained by [Cross-claimant] and imposed by parole terms," Cross-claimant and Mr. ...


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