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Fatal California Police Shooting Video Unsealed Over Police Objections

Following a $4.7 million settlement, a California federal court unsealed the dashcam footage of a police shooting, over law enforcement objections.

On June 2, 2013, Agustin DeJesus Reynoso's bicycle was stolen from a Gardena,

California CVS store. A security guard called 911 to report that two men had stolen a customer's bike.

Reynoso called his brother, Zeferino while waiting for police. Zeferino was walking home with Mendez and Amado who were riding their bicycles.

Gardena police officer Calvin Cuff stopped and detained Mendez and Amado. Zeferino told Cuff that Mendez and Amado were not the "right guys."

Officers Anthony Mendez, Steven-Fong Toda, and Christopher Sanderson arrived on scene. They exited their vehicles with guns pointed at Zeferino, Mendez, and Amado.

Mendez and Amado had their hands over their head and Zeferino was holding his hat in one hand and displaying the open palm of his other hand. Nevertheless, Officers Mendez, Toda and Sanderson opened fire. Zeferino and Mendez were shot, and Zeferino died from his wounds.

The Officers claimed that Zeferino refused to comply with orders to raise his hands and took two "threatening" steps towards Cuff. The officers claimed that they opened fire when Zeferino removed his hat from his head and swung his right hand to his waist, causing them to fear for their safety. They claimed that Mendez was shot accidentally.

Zeferino's family, Mendez and Amado brought federal suit against the officers and several other Defendants, alleging excessive force, assault, battery, wrongful death, negligence and false arrest/imprisonment, claims.

The district court issued a jointly stipulated protective order regarding the "homicide book" because it was "part of an ongoing criminal investigation that is confidential official information."

Plaintiffs subsequently filed an ex parte application to have the confidential designation removed from certain items in the homicide book, including the video footage of the shooting from the officers' dashcams.

Defendants ultimately withdrew the confidential designation from written documents but "maintained the confidentiality designation as to photos, video, and audiotapes depicting the incident, any police officers or percipient witnesses, the decedent or bloody evidence, and audio or video records of officers' and witnesses' statements."

The parties moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs moved to submit the car camera video footage under seal, in support of their motion. On February 11, 2015, the Court allowed the filing of the video footage under seal. Six days later, the parties reached a $4.7 million settlement. When the case was dismissed on May 18, 2015, the summary judgment motions were still pending.

On June 8, 2015, Los Angeles Times Communications, LLC, The Associated Press, and Bloomberg, L.P., moved to intervene in the dismissed case for the limited purpose of unsealing the patrol car dash camera footage. Defendants opposed both motions, arguing that they agreed to settle "because they expected the protective order to continue and the videos to remain secret." The California State Sheriffs' Association, California Police Chiefs’ Association, and the California Peace Officers' Association appeared as Amici Curiae in support of Defendants. Plaintiffs joined the Media Outlets' motion to intervene and unseal the videos.

"Defendants' argument backfires here — the fact that they spent the city's money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public's interest in seeing the videos," the court found. "The only valid privacy interest in this case belongs to the Plaintiffs, who have made abundantly clear that they wish the videos to be made available to the public."

In granting intervention and unsealing of the videos, the court rejected the argument of amici curiae that "a decision to unseal the video footage could impact the debate over police use of body worn cameras." The court found that "this is a political issue not relevant to the legal considerations here at play."

The court also denied Defendants' request to stay the unsealing of the videos while they appealed, finding that "Defendants do not even attempt to show that a stay is justified." See: Mendez v. The City of Gardena, USDC No. 2:13-cv-09042-SVW-AJW (CD Cal 2015).

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Related legal case

Mendez v. The City of Gardena