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Velasquez v. City of Santa Clara

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 31, 2014

VICTOR VELASQUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF SANTA CLARA, et al., Defendants.

ORDER DENYING MOTIONS FOR JUDGEMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW AND FOR A NEW TRIAL (RE: DOCKET NOS. 286, 288)

PAUL S. GREWAL, Magistrate Judge.

On an otherwise quiet summer day six years ago, three sworn officers of the Santa Clara Police Department fired thirteen bullets at Victor Velasquez at close range. Six shots struck Velasquez in the upper body; three struck his head. Miraculously, he survived. After two weeks of testimony and three days of deliberation, a jury of nine unanimously decided that the officers acted reasonably in light of the circumstances they faced. Velasquez now asks the court for judgment as a matter of law or, at a minimum, an order granting him a new trial with another jury. For the reasons set forth below, the court declines both requests; Velasquez' motions are DENIED.[1]

I. BACKGROUND

This case went to trial because there are mixed accounts of what happened on the afternoon of June 20, 2008. Everyone seems to agree that on that day, Velasquez was at the Courtyard Marriott across from the San Jose airport, [2] and that he was hiding from the police.[3] There was a warrant out for Velasquez' arrest, [4] and the police were informed that Velasquez was armed.[5] When the police got wind that Velasquez was holed up at the Marriott, they sent a team of officers to apprehend him.[6] The officers watched as Velasquez came out of the hotel, walked up to talk to someone in a car in the parking lot, approached his own car and started to get in.[7] At that point, the officers sprang into action. They pulled one unmarked police vehicle up directly behind Velasquez' car and positioned another to its side.[8] Seconds later, the officers exited the vehicles, assessed the situation, and fired thirteen times.[9]

What happened in those few seconds between the officers jumping into action and the last shot being fired is where the key dispute in this case arises. Construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Defendants and making all reasonable inferences in their favor, events unfolded as follows. Nick Richards was positioned behind the car, on the driver's side, and Steven Buress and Craig Middlekauf were on the passenger's side of the car.[10] The officers shouted at Velasquez, ordering him to stop, but Velasquez ignored those commands, got in and turned on the car.[11] Velasquez then put the car in gear, and the car began to move.[12] Velasquez next reached down toward his waistband, then brought his hands up in an indistinct gesture.[13] When the officers saw Velasquez reach down, they believed that he was going for a weapon, so they began to fire.[14] Only afterwards did the officers learn that Velasquez was unarmed.

Velasquez filed this lawsuit against the City of Santa Clara and the involved officers in state court, bringing claims under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, California's Bane Act, California's Ralph Act, and common law claims for battery, assault, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[15] Defendants removed to federal court.[16] After extensive discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.[17] The court denied these motions, finding that "the facts that underlie all of the claims at issue [were] in dispute."[18] The court also denied Defendants' request for qualified immunity.[19]

Trial began March 24, 2014 and lasted for 13 days. Despite his present incarceration, Velasquez was permitted to appear at trial and testify live. 26 other witnesses, including five experts, also testified. The court also authorized a jury inspection of Velasquez' vehicle, although Velasquez later declined to pursue it. The jury asked over 50 questions during testimony and sent out twelve questions for the court during their deliberations.[20] After a day and a half, the jury declared itself "hopelessly deadlocked."[21] The court instructed them to return the next morning and try again.[22] The next day, the jury asked two questions about the burden of proof, which, the court replied, were answered in specific instructions already provided.[23] Shortly thereafter, the jury returned a verdict for Defendants on all counts.[24] To overturn that verdict, Velasquez brings the instant motions.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b) provides that, upon a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court may: (1) "allow judgment on the verdict, if the jury returned a verdict, " (2) "order a new trial" or (3) "direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law." To grant a Rule 50(b) motion, the court must determine that "the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's."[25] In other words, to set aside the verdict, there must be an absence of "substantial evidence" - meaning "relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion" - to support the jury's verdict.[26] "Substantial evidence is more than a mere" scintilla;[27] it constitutes "such relevant evidence as reasonable minds might accept as adequate to support a conclusion even if it is possible to draw two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence."[28] In reviewing a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court "must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor."[29] "In ruling on such a motion, the trial court may not weigh the evidence or assess the credibility of witnesses in determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the verdict."[30]

Fed. R. Civ. P. 59 states that the court "may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues." The "trial court may grant a new trial, even though the verdict is supported by substantial evidence, if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence or is based upon evidence which is false, or to prevent, in the sound discretion of the trial court, a miscarriage of justice.'"[31]

III. DISCUSSION

A. Judgment As A Matter Of Law Is Not Warranted

Velasquez argues for judgment as a matter of law as to all claims under two theories.[32] First, he asks the court to accept four fundamental facts and argues that based on those ostensibly uncontested facts, no reasonable jury could conclude that Defendants had a clear line of sight when they decided to shoot Velasquez.[33] Second, he argues that the forensic evidence from the bullet wounds precludes any reasonable jury from concluding that Velasquez' hands were near his waistband when he was shot, and no reasonable jury could conclude that the officers' actions ...


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