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Watkins v. City of San Jose

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

May 4, 2017

SHARON WATKINS, et al., Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF SAN JOSE, et al., Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NO. 44

          LUCY H. KOH United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Deviny Buchanan, on behalf of herself and her minor daughter Laniyah Watkins; Sharon Watkins; and Sylvia Buchanan (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) bring the instant suit against Defendants City of San Jose, Police Officer Ryan Dote, and Police Officer James Soh (collectively, “Defendants”) for the shooting of Phillip Watkins. Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 44 (“Mot.”). Having considered the parties' briefing, the relevant law, and the record in this case, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         The instant suit arises from the fatal shooting of Phillip Watkins (“Decedent”) by Officers Dote and Soh on February 11, 2015.

         1. The Parties

         Sharon Watkins is Decedent's mother, and was not at the scene where Decedent was shot. Deviny Buchanan was Decedent's fiancee at the time of Decedent's death. Laniyah Watkins is Decedent's and Deviny Buchanan's daughter. Deviny Buchanan was present when Decedent was shot and is a witness to the shooting. Sylvia Buchanan is Deviny's mother, was present when Decedent was shot, and is a witness to the shooting.

         Officers Dote and Soh (the “officers”) are the San Jose Police Officers who shot Decedent. The City of San Jose (the “City”) is the officers' employer.

         2. The 911 Call, Dispatch of the Officers, and the Shooting of Decedent

         On February 11, 2015, at 5:00 p.m., an unidentified male called 911 and reported that a man with a knife was in the caller's house at 1377 Sherman Street in San Jose, California and was threatening to kill the caller's family. ECF No. 44-2, Declaration of Raul Corral (“Corral Decl.”) ¶ 5 & Ex. 1. The caller stated that he was locked up in a room with his kids and asked for help to “please come fast.” Id. Deviny Buchanan identified the caller as Decedent by his voice. ECF No. 44-1 at 26-27, D. Buchanan Decl. at 137-38.

         At 5:01:27 p.m., San Jose Police Dispatch broadcasted the incident. ECF No. 44-1 at 144 (“Dispatch Log”). Several officers in the area responded. Id. Officers Dote and Soh arrived on the scene first, and notified dispatch of their arrival at 5:03:14 p.m. Id. at 145. Officers Dote and Soh parked several houses away from 1377 Sherman Street and exited their vehicle. ECF No. 44-3, Declaration of Ryan Dote (“Dote Decl.”) ¶ 6; ECF No. 44-1 at 69-71, Deposition of Ryan Dote (“Dote Depo”) at 76-78. Officers Dote and Soh were wearing police uniforms. ECF No. 49-4 at 18.

         Decedent was speaking with Deviny and Sylvia Buchanan in front of the house located at 1377 Sherman Street when the officers arrived. ECF No. 44-1 at 67, Dote Depo. at 65. Decedent saw the officers and began walking towards them with a knife in his hand. ECF No. 44-1 at 75, Dote Depo. at 86-87. Decedent's eyes were “locked” on the officers. ECF No. 44-1 at 94, Dote Depo. at 122. According to the officers, the knife was in Decedent's right hand. ECF No. 44-1 at 78, Dote Depo. at 90-92. The officers were able to identify that Decedent was holding a knife because Decedent's “right hand was outstretched to the side of his body” with the knife “pointed up.” Id. At 5:04:38 p.m., the officers informed dispatch that “[w]e have a male with a knife; he's walking towards us.” Dispatch Log at 145. The knife was a CRKT-brand partially-serrated 8 to 9 inch folding pocket knife with a 3 to 4 inch blade that Deviny Buchanan states was her brother's “Marine knife.” ECF No. 49-11 at 2 (picture of bloodstained knife); ECF No. 44-1 at 38, Deposition of Deviny Buchanan (“D. Buchanan Depo.”) at 161 (“It was my brother's Marine knife.”)

         At 5:04:45 p.m., Officers Dote and Soh drew their guns in a “low-ready” position. Dispatch Log at 145. Either immediately before or after drawing their guns, the officers commanded Decedent to “stop and get on the ground and drop the knife.” ECF No. 44-1 at 89, Dote Depo. at 115; D. Buchanan Tr. at 119, 122 (“I remember the police saying, “Stop, stop” or “Stop where you're at.” I don't know the exact wording that they used, but it was like, “Stop where you're at” or something.”). According to the officers, Decedent did not respond to the commands and continued advancing toward the officers. ECF No. 44-1 at 89-90, Dote Depo. at 115-16 (“I raised my firearm towards Mr. Watkins. As soon as he didn't comply with our lawful order to stop and get on the ground and drop the knife . . . because it was evident at that point he was not going to do any of those.”).

         The officers assert that Decedent then began “running and sprinting” towards the officers. Dote Decl. ¶ 12; ECF No. 44-4, Declaration of James Soh (“Soh Decl.”) ¶ 10; see also ECF No. 44-1 at 79, Dote Depo. at 95 (“I would estimate he took two or three steps as a walk, and then immediately he started sprinting towards us.”). Sylvia Buchanan states that Decedent started “trotting” or running towards the officers. ECF No. 44-1 at 56, Deposition of Sylvia Buchanan (“S. Buchanan Depo.”) at 79; ECF No. 50-1 at 10, S. Buchanan Depo. at 108 (“I just know that he was running. Okay? He was running.”).

         Other witnesses agree that Decedent started to run towards the officers. Osvaldo Gonzalez, a passerby, stated in a deposition that Decedent was walking towards the officers and then began to “accelerate his pace” and was “starting to run.” ECF No. 44-1 at 118-20, Deposition of Osvaldo Gonzalez (“Gonzalez Depo.”) at 15-17 (“I actually did see him picking up the run.”). Gonzalez states that he “knew something was going to happen” because of “the pace [Decedent] was going towards the officers.” Id. Gonzalez did not see the shooting itself because he was trying to take out his phone to take a video of what was going to happen. Id. Gonzalez started recording seconds after the shots were fired. ECF No. 44-1 at 123, Gonzalez Depo. at 25.

         Erica Menchaca, another witness at the scene of the shooting, stated in a deposition that she could only see the top half of Decedent's body, but that it looked like Decedent “accelerate[d]” and “lunge[d] toward the officers.” ECF No. 44-1 at 129-31, Menchaca Depo. at 25-27. She stated it was almost like he was “initiating some sort of fight or a run forward.” Id. Alternatively, she described the lunge forward as a “taunt, ” which she further described as a “lunge” and an action that “someone would do if they were trying to engage someone” to “try to chase him” or “to try to break through [the officers].” Id.

         Officers Dote and Soh each fired at Decedent. Officer Dote fired six shots, and Officer Soh fired four shots. Dote Decl. ¶ 26; Soh Decl. ¶ 24. These shots took approximately two to three seconds to fire, stopped Decedent's advance, and caused Decedent to fall to the ground. At 5:04:55 p.m., seventeen seconds after Decedent had started walking towards the officers with a knife and ten seconds after the officers had drawn their guns on Decedent, the officers reported the shots to dispatch. Dispatch Log at 145. Decedent was still holding the knife in his right hand after he fell to the ground. Dote Decl. ¶ 27; Soh Decl ¶ 25.

         The officers both testified that they heard yelling when they began shooting. Sylvia Buchanan asserts that she was behind Decedent and yelling at the officers: “He needs your help. Help him. Help him and Tase him.” ECF No. 44-1 at 57, S. Buchanan Depo. at 80. Officer Soh stated that he heard someone yelling “No” multiple times, and Officer Dote stated that he heard someone yelling, “Stop. You don't have to do this, ” but that he could not distinguish what exactly was said after that. Soh Decl. ¶ 13; ECF No. 44-1 at 80, Dote Depo. at 96 (“I know she was screaming and yelling, but I don't remember exactly what she was saying.”).

         Officer Dote states that although he had seen Sylvia Buchanan with Decedent before Decedent started walking towards the officer, at the time the shots were fired “she wasn't directly behind [the Decedent]” and “was not in the backstop” i.e., “the line of fire” when he fired. ECF No. 49-5 at 54, Dote Depo. at 131. Sylvia Buchanan states that she “dropp[ed] to the ground.” ECF No. 44-1 at 56, S. Buchanan Depo. at 79-80. Deviny Buchanan states that she had ran back up towards the house before the shooting began. ECF No. 44-1 at 17, D. Buchanan Depo. at 120 (“And then the police drew their guns. And right at that point, I turned around and started walking back towards the house, and I covered my eyes.”).

         Officer Dote estimated that he started shooting when Decedent was “maybe 40ish feet” away. ECF No. 44-1 at 84, Dote Decl. at 103. Officer Soh stated in a deposition that “I knew that if I had delayed another second longer, he would been [sic] right on top of me.” ECF No. 44-1 at 105, Soh Depo. at 113. The officers' estimates of distances were different immediately after the shooting. Officer Dote estimated that Decedent was 20 feet away when he began shooting, but acknowledged the distance was further at his deposition. ECF No. 49-5 at 51-52, Dote Depo. at 122-23 (“That was based on approximations, but that's what I told Detective Corral.”). After the shooting, Officer Soh told another officer that Decedent was 10 to 15 feet away when Officer Soh opened fire, but he states that he had “misinterpreted the question” and that he knew that Decedent was “21 feet or more” from the officers when Officer Soh began shooting. ECF No. 49-4 at 40, Soh Depo. at 109. There is no evidence in the record of which officer shot first and whether there was a delay between the two officers' shooting.

         Based on photos of the crime scene and measurements taken at the scene of the shooting, Plaintiffs estimate the distance between the Decedent and the officers when the officers began shooting to be between 52 feet, 9 inches and 54 feet, 9.5 inches (the Court rounds up to 55 feet for the purposes of this order), ECF No. 49-1, Declaration of Gregg Dietz (“Dietz Decl.”) ¶ 8, and Defendants estimate this distance to be 46 feet. ECF No. 44-5, Declaration of Barry Witt (“Witt Decl.”) ¶ 7; Opp'n at 2. Plaintiffs' and Defendants' estimates were obtained by measuring the distance between marks made by Officer Dote on a photo of the scene after the shooting. Id.

         Officer Dote estimates that Decedent was “approximately 10 to 15 feet” away when Decedent fell to the ground. ECF No. 44-1 at 85, Dote Depo. at 104. Measurements based on a video taken by witness Gonzalez immediately after the shooting show that Decedent fell to the ground approximately 17 feet 10 inches from the officers. Witt Decl. ¶ 4.

         As the officers were shooting, the officers were moving backwards. ECF No. 44-1 at 85, Dote Depo. at 104 (“We were doing a tactical withdraw, going backwards. . . Q. Okay. So you started firing. And then you were going backwards, right? A. Correct.”); Dote Decl. ¶ 20 (“While the man was running at us, I was doing a tactical retreat, taking small steps backward to attempt to create additional time and distance between the man and me.”); Soh Decl. ¶ 19 (same). From Decedent's starting point in front of 1377 Sherman Street, to the spot where Decedent fell to the ground after being shot, Decedent covered a total distance of approximately 130 feet. Witt Decl. ¶ 5.

         Plaintiff Deviny Buchanan's and Plaintiff Sylvia Buchanan's testimony largely corresponds to the account of the officers. Deviny Buchanan told Decedent's mother on the phone immediately after the accident that “when [Decedent] saw the cops walking up, he took out a knife and ran at them.” Corral Decl. Ex. 3 at 8-9; ECF No. 44-1 at 28, D. Buchanan Depo. at 148; see also ECF No. 44-1 at 31, D. Buchanan Depo. at 151 (Deviny Buchanan telling her friend on the phone that Decedent “ran at the fucking cops with a knife”). In an interview with the officers on the day of the shooting, Deviny Buchanan provided a more detailed account:

[He] walked outside, and I was looking at him from the porch. And, like, I saw that he had a knife. Like my back was towards the police at this point; so I didn't even know they were, like, actually walking up the street. And he, like, looked down the street, and he looked at me, and, like, I saw the knife. I thought he was going to come towards me with the knife, and then I stepped to the side, and he walked right past me, and I thought he was walking towards the kids in the car. So that's when I turned around, and I see the police walking up the street.
And Phill, like, took out the knife and started, like, walking towards the police. I'm like, ‘Phill, what are you doing? Just stop.' And he just kept walking. And the police are like, uhm, ‘Stop right there. Stop right there.' And then me and my mom were just like, ‘Please don't shoot, because he wants you to shoot. Just don't shoot. Please don't shoot' And then after that, uhm, I kind of ran back on the porch because I didn't want to see what was going to happen, because I knew what was going to happen, and I just heard the gunshots after that.

ECF No. 44-1 at 41, D. Buchanan Depo. at 167-68.

         In a police interview with Sylvia Buchanan on the day of the shooting, Sylvia Buchanan stated that Decedent was “running toward the officers.” ECF No. 50-1 at 9-10; Corral Decl. Ex. 5 at 30-33. When asked whether Decedent was “jogging or charging the officers, ” Sylvia Buchanan stated that she did not know and that it “just happened so fast.” Id. at 10. Sylvia Buchanan stated that “[Decedent] was running to them” and that she was “trying to get behind him [and] hollering, begging, saying, ‘Phil, please, stop. Stop.” Id. at 10. Sylvia Buchanan stated that the police officers drew their guns when Decedent began running towards them, and that she could not hear whether the officers commanded Decedent to stop “because [she] was screaming[, ] . . . hollering.” Id. at 11.

         However, in a deposition taken in the instant suit, Sylvia Buchanan provides a different account from her police interview. In the deposition, Sylvia Buchanan states that Decedent first started walking towards the officers, then started trotting, and that when the officers commanded Decedent to stop, Decedent stopped. ECF No. 44-1 at 56-57, S. Buchanan Depo. at 79-80 (“Then he stopped, because they were telling him to stop, and he stopped.”). Sylvia Buchanan stated that she does not remember what happened after Decedent stopped. Id. (“Q. And after he stopped, did he start moving toward them again? A. The only thing I remember is gunfire. Q. So you don't remember whether he started moving toward them again? A. I was screaming, and I was moving. So whether he was moving, I can't remember. The only thing I remember is them shooting at him, dropping to the ground, and they kept shooting.”).

         3. Decedent's Mental State and the Events Before the Arrival of Officers Dote and Soh

         At the time of the shooting, evidence in the record shows that Decedent was suicidal.[1] ECF No. 49-3 at 9, S. Buchanan Depo. at 35 (“[Decedent] said he didn't know if he wanted to live.”). ECF No. 44-1 at 30, D. Buchanan Depo. at 150. On the day of the shooting, February 11, 2015, Deviny Buchanan told Watkins that she did not want to marry him anymore because of his behavior. ECF No. 44-1 at 135 (Deviny Buchanan text to Decedent: “Phill im sorry but im not gonna marry things are no where near ok and how u acted yesterday is fucked up no means no and always has but itjisy [sic] never meant no to u . . .”). During the text message exchange, Decedent told Deviny Buchanan that “honestly I could kill u and kill myself out of the love or bond I have for you and us together . . . .” ECF No. 44-1 at 140.

         Later that day, approximately one hour before the shooting, Deviny Buchanan and Sylvia Buchanan came home to find Decedent sitting on their front porch. ECF No. 44-1 at 11, D. Buchanan Depo. at 103. Decedent was distraught because Deviny Buchanan had told Decedent that she no longer wanted to marry him. ECF No. 44-1 at 140. Deviny Buchanan asked her mom, Sylvia Buchanan, to talk to Decedent and calm him down. ECF No. 44-1 at 12-14, D. Buchanan Depo. at 106-08. Sylvia Buchanan asked Decedent to talk with her upstairs in the house. Id.

         While upstairs, Decedent told Sylvia Buchanan that he did not want to live anymore. ECF No. 44-1 at 53, S. Buchanan Depo. at 39. From downstairs, Deviny Buchanan heard Decedent say that “he wanted to kill himself and he was going to kill himself.” ECF No. 44-1 at 34, D. Buchanan Depo. at 156. Deviny Buchanan also heard Decedent say, “[s]he doesn't want to be with me, but I want to be with her. She's trying to leave me, and I'm not going to let that happen.” Id. Deviny Buchanan also states that “he said he'd kill me.” Id. Deviny Buchanan then heard banging from upstairs so she “grabbed the kids, and [] put them in the truck outside.” Id. Deviny Buchanan also took all of the kitchen knives in the kitchen and hid them in the car. ECF No. 44-1 at 24, D. Buchanan Depo. at 132 (“I took out my mom's whole knife drawer, and I took her knife block and put it in the car.”). However, while upstairs, Decedent obtained the knife he was carrying when he was shot. ECF No. 44-1 at 38, D. Buchanan Depo. at 161 (“It's a pocketknife. It was my brother's Marine knife. . . . I should have known that's why he was going upstairs.”).

         During the conversation between Decedent and Sylvia Buchanan upstairs, Decedent said, among other things, that he didn't know if he wanted to live and that the devil was after him. ECF No. 44-1 at 53, S. Buchanan Depo. at 39. When Decedent would not calm down, Sylvia Buchanan called the mental health department of Valley Medical Hospital to ask what she should do. ECF No. 44-1 at 51-53, S. Buchanan Depo. at 37-39. Sylvia Buchanan was told that a police intervention unit could be sent to help Decedent, or Sylvia Buchanan could bring Decedent into the hospital herself. Id.; ECF No. 49-3 at 16, S. Buchanan Depo. at 66-67.

         While not exactly clear when, at some point around when Sylvia Buchanan was calling the Valley Medical Hospital, Decedent made the 911 call about a man with a knife that led to the arrival of Officers Dote and Soh at 1377 Sherman Street. Deviny Buchanan described Decedent's stated purpose for calling the police in a recorded phone call to Sharon Watkins, Decedent's mother, as follows:

We tried. He was -- because he was acting crazy, and we tried to call the psych ward, and [Decedent] was like, ‘Fuck it. I'm going to end it, ' and he called the police. And he said, ‘When they get here, I'm going to fucking go at them, and I'm going to let them take care of it.' I don't -- I don't know.

ECF No. 44-1 at 30, D. Buchanan Depo. at 150.

         At that point, Sylvia Buchanan decided to bring Decedent to Valley Medical Hospital herself either because she did not think police intervention was necessary, ECF No. 49-3 at 16, S. Buchanan Depo. at 66-67 (Sylvia testifying that she did not think police intervention was necessary), or because Decedent had been saying that he wanted to call the cops so that he could commit suicide by charging at them, ECF No. 44-1 at 34-35, D. Buchanan Depo. at 156-57 (“And my mom's like, ‘Well, I don't want to call the cops, because he's saying he wants to call the cops so that he can charge at them.'”). Decedent agreed to go to the hospital. ECF No. 49-3 at 16, S. Buchanan Depo. at 66-67.

         Sylvia Buchanan and Decedent walked outside toward Sylvia Buchanan's car. ECF No. 49-3 at 17, S. Buchanan Depo. at 68. Deviny Buchanan either was already outside or walked outside with Sylvia Buchana and Decedent. At that point, Officers Dote and Soh arrived, and the shooting described above occurred.

         Deviny Buchanan described Decedent's actions to Sharon Watkins in a recorded phone conversation after the shooting: “Phill tried to commit suicide and he ran at the cops with a knife and they fucking shot him.” Corral Decl. Ex. 3 at 5:55-6:58 (“Phill came downstairs and said ‘I called the police so they'll shoot me.'”). In a recorded phone call to Deviny Buchanan's friend, Tiffany, Deviny Buchanan stated that “[Decedent] called the cops on himself and ran at the fucking cops with a knife.” Id. at 12:15-12:54; ECF No. 44-1 at 31, D. Buchanan Depo. at 151. Deviny Buchanan also sent a text message at 5:40 p.m. on the day of the shooting that stated “phill tried to commit suicide and called the cops amd [sic] ran at them wit [sic] a knife and the cops shot him.” ECF No. 44-2 at 8. In an interview with the police later on the day of the shooting, Deviny Buchanan stated that “it kind of looked like [Decedent] wanted [the police] to shoot him” and “[h]e called [the police]. So it's like he wanted them to come just so he could charge at them to get shot.” Corral Decl. Ex. 4 at 37:30-37:58; ECF No. 44-1 at 42-43, D. Buchanan Depo. at 169- 70.

         B. Procedural Background

         On December 17, 2015, Plaintiffs filed the instant suit. See Complaint, ECF No. 1 (“Compl.”). Plaintiffs assert five causes of action: (1) violation of civil rights for use of excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) violation of civil rights for use of excessive force under California Civil Code § 52.1 (“Bane Act Claim”); (3) commission of an act of violence motivated by racial bias in violation of California Civil Code § 51.7 (“Ralph ...


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