A federal court jury awarded a man $534,340 Friday on his excessive force claim that he was shot without warning by a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy when he opened his front door in response to deputies banging on it.
Robert I. Reese Jr., 46, who now resides in south Sacramento, was awakened between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. on March 25, 2011, by deputies pounding on the front door of the Carmichael apartment where he was then living.
According to court papers filed by attorneys Stewart Katz and Dale Galipo, their client looked out a window and through a peephole in the door, but could not see anyone nor hear anything, “so Reese picked up a kitchen knife for self-defense.”
Upon opening the door, he still did not see anyone.
“Nobody identified themselves, and Reese was given no commands or directions by anyone,” the court papers say. “Within two seconds, without any warning, the ... deputies opened fire.”
It turned out, the papers state, Deputies Duncan Brown and Zachary Rose were investigating an anonymous report that they later recognized was probably false. The anonymous caller had described shots fired by someone who went back into apartment 144, which was Reese’s apartment. The deputies did not have information that anyone had been injured, according to the court papers.
Attorney John Whitefleet, in papers filed on behalf of Sacramento County and the deputies, said the 911 operator relayed information from the anonymous caller that a “black male adult ... just came outside and shot an automatic gun and had a steak knife in the other hand … (s)ubject is now inside apartment, caller thinks subject is home alone and thinks subject is possibly high on drugs and possibly has psych issues.”
Apartment 144 was identified by the caller, but the identity of the black male was unknown to the deputies at the time they responded, Whitefleet said. Reese is African American.
The deputies stationed themselves where they could not be seen by an apartment occupant and were quiet due to “the possibility of gunfire coming through the door,” Whitefleet wrote in his papers. He said Rose knocked on the apartment door three times with the butt of his flashlight while holding his service weapon in his other hand. Rose did not announce himself “out of concerns for safety and knowing that an announcement was not required since he was not there to enter the apartment or to serve a warrant,” Whitefleet wrote.
The lawyer contended in his papers that Reese “rapidly opened the door with a knife in one hand, making sounds. The deputies believed Reese “posed an imminent danger.”
Evidence presented at the trial showed that Brown fired his rifle but missed Reese, who dropped the knife and stepped back into his apartment. Then Rose fired his handgun while standing approximately 5 feet from Reese, with a round hitting Reese in the upper right chest and exiting.
Reese “was taken into custody without further incident,” Whitefleet noted in his court papers.
He suffered “unreasonable interference with his personal liberty, physical injury, pain and suffering, humiliation, emotional distress and other injuries,” according to his complaint.
The seven-member jury deliberated over parts of three days at the conclusion of a seven-day trial before delivering its Friday verdict in Reese’s favor.
Jurors concluded that Rose used excessive force in violation of Reese’s Fourth Amendment rights, but Brown did not. They also exonerated Brown of battery, but decided Rose battered Reese unlawfully and, because of that, Sacramento County has some responsibility for the battery.
Jurors decided that Reese did not open his front door “rapidly.” They found that Reese had a knife in his hand when he opened the door, that part of his body was initially across the threshold, but that he never brandished the knife in any fashion.
They further found that at the time Brown fired his rifle at Reese, the resident’s arm was not in a threatening position to stab Rose. They also determined that at the time Rose fired his handgun, the deputy couldn’t see Reese’s hands.
Finally, the jury concluded that at the time Rose fired the round that went through Reese’s body, Reese posed no “immediate threat of death or serious physical injury to Deputy Rose.”
In the aftermath of the incident, the Sheriff’s Department found nothing wrong with the deputies’ performances and concluded that they acted within the department’s policies. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office decided the incident did not merit prosecution of the deputies.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said Friday the department’s investigation “exonerated the officers both criminally and administratively. We’re not happy with the jury’s verdict but we don’t have any control over how a jury in a civil trial interprets the evidence. How it’s presented and interpreted in the trial of a civil suit and how it’s weighed for criminal culpability are two different things. We deemed the shooting justified.”
Shelly Orio, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said the office reviews “an officer-involved shooting (as to) whether or not there is sufficient evidence to support the filing of criminal action. Issues of civil liability, tactics, and department policies and procedures are not considered.”
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189