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San Diego County Pays $8.1 Million After Jail Guard Fatally Shot Fleeing Detainee in the Back

by Chuck Sharman

On June 22, 2022, San Diego County agreed to pay $8.1 million to settle claims that a deputy outside a county jail chased a fleeing detainee and fatally shot him in the back. It was the largest payout for a wrongful death by the county in at least the past two years, during which it has also shelled out another $7.6 million to settle four other suits over in-custody deaths. [See: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.1.]

The case began with the arrest of Nicholas Bils at Old Town State Park on May 1, 2020. The 36-year-old had been hitting golf balls for his dog to chase when two park rangers approached him for violating COVID-19 restrictions and for having a dog off-leash. Bils, who suffered from schizophrenia, allegedly ran from the rangers. But they claimed he brandished a golf club at them, so they arrested him for assault with a deadly weapon and resisting arrest. Bils was handcuffed and driven in the rangers’ patrol car to San Diego’s Central Jail downtown.

Just outside the jail, Bils managed to slip free of his handcuffs and jump from the car, running away down the sidewalk. Surveillance video then captured a jail guard, San Diego Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) Deputy Aaron Russell, as he gave chase, drew his gun and fired five shots at the fleeing man, striking him four times in the back. Bils died from his injuries.

Russell was fired and charged with second-degree murder. His was the first case against a law enforcement officer accused of a wrongful shooting since a change in state law took effect at the beginning of 2020. Previously, use of deadly force was justified so long as it was “reasonable.” Under the new law, the standard was raised, and deadly force is now justified only when “necessary” because a life is in danger and non-lethal methods are unavailable. Faced with that, Russell pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a year in jail on February 7, 2022. [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.62.]

Meanwhile, with the aid of attorneys Brian T. Dunn and Edward M. Lyman from The Cochran Firm, Bils’ father, Henry, filed suit on behalf of his son’s estate in federal court for the Southern District of California on October 20, 2020, accusing the county and Russell under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of violating the younger Bils’ Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, making an additional claim as well under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., since Nicolas Bils suffered a mental disability.

A second suit was filed two months later in the same court by attorneys Eugene Iredale, Julia Yoo, and Grace Jun from Iredale & Yoo. Making similar claims against the county and Russell on behalf of Bils’ estate through his mother, Kathleen, and his three brothers, Timothy, Kacey, and Benjamin, that suit also named as defendants the park rangers who arrested Bils on allegedly flimsy probable cause and then transported him to jail apparently without securing his handcuffs.

Henry Bils died in October 2021, and his three sons were substituted as plaintiffs in his lawsuit. Both suits were then resolved by the settlement, under which the county agreed to pay $8.1 million in total. Of that, $5.1 million went to Bils’ mother and the attorneys from Iredale & Yoo. Another $1 million went to each of Bils’ three brothers and the attorneys from The Cochran Firm. See: Bils v. Cty. of San Diego, USDC (S.D. Ca.), Case No. 3:20-cv-02069; and Bils v. Russell, USDC (S.D. Ca.), Case No. 3:20-cv-02481. 

Additional sources: KPBS, San Diego Union-Tribune

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Related legal cases

Bils v. Cty. of San Diego

Bils v. Russell