Judge allows officer shooting lawsuit to proceed

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldMarch 7, 2013 

A federal judge is allowing a lawsuit filed by the family of a man shot to death by a Kennewick police officer to continue to trial.

Chief Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson of the Eastern District of Washington in Spokane on Wednesday signed an order partially denying a motion for summary judgment by attorneys for Kennewick Officer Lee Cooper, the city, police department and Chief Ken Hohenberg.

A motion for summary judgment asks a judge to dismiss a case or parts of a case if the judge finds there are no issues that should go to trial.

The case stems from the Sept. 14, 2009, shooting death of Christopher Villarreal, 39, in a downtown Kennewick parking lot.

Villarreal was reported as an erratic driver and was followed into downtown Kennewick by a motorcycle officer, who claimed Villarreal swerved at him and tried to hit him before pulling off into a parking lot.

Villarreal reportedly was backing up toward Cooper in the parking lot when the officer fired nine times and fatally wounded him, although the sequence and perception of events is under dispute in the court case.

An FBI investigation found no evidence of a willful violation of Villarreal's civil rights, and an internal shooting review found Lee's actions were lawful and proper. After the investigations, Cooper returned to full duty in 2010.

Villarreal's family subsequently sued, claiming excessive use of force by police in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and for wrongful death. The family is seeking damages in an amount to be determined at a trial.

Claims for false arrest, failure to summon aid and violation of due process were withdrawn by the family, court documents said.

The decision issued Wednesday said that because valid questions exist whether Villarreal was trying to flee and whether he posed a threat to Cooper at the time the shots were fired, that the case should proceed to a trial where a jury can deliberate the facts.

"Given that a jury could discount Officer Cooper's testimony as to the earlier swerve, a jury could similarly find that a reasonable officer in Officer Cooper's position would believe that Villarreal was attempting to park to talk to the officer, rather than attempting to escape, or as Officer Cooper maintains, attempting to hit him," the decision said. "Accordingly, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, a reasonable fact finder could find a violation of Mr. Villarreal's Fourth Amendment rights."

The court also refused to rule out possible punitive damages in the case.

But the court dismissed a claim that the city and police department had failed to properly train Cooper.

Trial in the case is set for Sept. 16.

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @mduplertch

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