Excessive force judgment orders Santa Clara to pay $500K for 2017 police shooting

SANTA CLARA — A federal jury has ordered the city of Santa Clara to pay $500,000 to a man who was shot and wounded by police during a traffic stop four years ago, after finding that an officer used excessive force when he opened fire, according to court records and attorneys.

The Dec. 2 civil verdict determined that Santa Clara Police Officer Jordan Fachko was liable for excessive and unreasonable force and negligence during the Oct. 21, 2017 confrontation with a then-24-year-old Omar Gomez. In doing so, jurors apparently rejected the claim by Fachko that Gomez was trying to run him over.

San Jose-based attorney Jaime Leaños, who represented Gomez in the federal civil rights lawsuit, contends that ballistics evidence showing that Fachko fired through the driver’s side window of Gomez’s car helped convince jurors that the officer was out of the car’s path.

“There were no shots through the windshield,” Leaños said in an interview Monday. “(The officer) said he thought he was going to be ran over, but physical evidence doesn’t support that. The jury didn’t believe the officer was in harm’s way at the time of the shooting.”

Authorities say the shooting occurred after Santa Clara police received a law-enforcement bulletin about a vehicle that was reported stolen in Sunnyvale. Fachko and another officer said that they spotted a car matching the description on El Camino Real, and sought to stop it near Scott Boulevard.

The two officers, driving separately, used their vehicles to box in Gomez’s vehicle and cut off an escape path. Gomez asserted in his lawsuit that he did not realize until the last second that they were police vehicles, and contends that he reversed his car to avoid colliding with a vehicle he thought was cutting him off. Gomez’s car hit the police vehicle positioned behind him.

In a statement, a Santa Clara city spokesperson said the city “respects the civil courts and the jury’s decision,” and “we respect the verdict,” but defended the officer, who remains with the department.

“In this case, the Santa Clara Police Department officer was confronted with a suspect who had stolen multiple vehicles and was driving while under the influence of methamphetamine. Once stopped, the suspect reversed into another Santa Clara Police Department vehicle, revved his engine, and lurched his vehicle towards the approaching officer, causing the officer to reasonably fear for his own safety,” the statement reads. “Therefore, the City and the Police Department believe that the level of force used in this incident was reasonable under the circumstances.”

Gomez was hit several times on his left side but survived his injuries. He later pleaded no-contest to charges of auto theft and resisting a police officer’s orders, but a charge for assault with a deadly weapon was dismissed.

The two officers did not activate their body-worn cameras during the traffic stop or the events that ended in the shooting. Leaños rejected the explanation given during trial that events unfolded too rapidly for the officers to start recording, noting that the cameras can be turned on with a quick button press.

Besides the excessive-force finding, the federal jury determined that Fachko and Gomez were each 50% responsible for Gomez’ injuries. Gomez, who is now 28, was awarded $250,000 for past economic damages, and $250,000 for past pain and suffering and emotional distress.

Leaños, who represented Gomez alongside Southern California-based attorney Dale Galipo, said he hopes the verdict signals a new level of scrutiny of police shootings compared to the past.

“We’re hoping we can lessen the number of shootings of unarmed people by the police,” Leaños said. “Jurors are holding officers accountable for shooting unarmed people who are not an immediate threat of death or great bodily injury to the officers.”

In April, the city of Santa Clara paid $5.3 million to avoid trial and settle an excessive-force lawsuit in the 2017 police shooting death of Jesus Geney Montes, who was experiencing a psychiatric crisis he was killed. In July, a federal civil jury awarded John Bowles $1.77 million after finding that in 2017 two San Jose police officers used excessive force when they shot Bowles — who was being chased during a violent driving rampage — after another officer had already announced that Bowles was unarmed.

In a case that shares some similarities with Gomez’s shooting, Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputy Andrew Hall was found guilty in October of assault with a firearm in the fatal shooting of 33-year-old Laudemer Arboleda. Hall shot Arboleda as he drove past deputies during a slow-speed chase in Danville in 2018, in a case that hinged on whether the deputy was actually in harm’s way when he resorted to deadly force.

The day after the verdict, the county announced plans to pay a $4.9 million settlement to Arboleda’s family.

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Author: Robert Salonga

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