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Ninth Circuit Reinstates $1.7M Civil Rights Damages in Cop Shooting

homeless person sleeping under a tarp in a city
The victim, who was autistic and often wandered from home, was shot by police after they found him sleeping in front of a building.

The Ninth circuit overturned a California district court ruling that prohibited pre-death pain and suffering damages caused by the violation of an autistic man’s civil rights when he was shot and killed by a police officer.

Los Angeles Police Officer Joseph Cruz and Officer David Romo found an autistic man, Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, 21, sleeping in front of an apartment building in Los Angeles. Believing he might be a drug user, Officer Cruz and his partner asked Chaudhry for his identification, which he provided.

While Cruz’s partner checked for warrants at their police vehicle, Cruz reported that Chaudhry lunged at him with a “boot knife.” Cruz fired four shots, killing Chaudhry in the early morning of May 25, 2008.

Shot while collapsed on the ground

Chaudhry’s parents filed a lawsuit for wrongful death, excessive force and assault and battery claim against Officer Cruz and the City of Los Angeles. The claims relied on both California state law and federal law, (42 U.S.C. section 1983) providing a cause of action for civil rights violations resulting in injury or death.

Evidence presented in trial showed that Chaudhry’s DNA was not on the “boot knife,” and that Cruz shot him while he “collaps[ed] to the ground, rather than while he was advancing toward Cruz.”

A jury awarded Chaudhry’s estate and decedents $700,000 for the wrongful death claim and $1 million under section 1983 for the excessive force civil rights violation arising from Chaudhry’s pre-death pain and suffering.

California statute prohibited recovery

The California district court later struck down the $1 million award based on California’s survival statute that prohibits recovery for pre-death pain and suffering and limits survival action compensatory damages to “the victim’s pre-death economic losses.” The district court held that the limit on compensatory damages was incorporated into and consistent with the civil rights violation law section 1983. In Chaudhry’s case, as a young autistic man sleeping on the street, the amount of pre-death economic loss was zero.

The Ninth Circuit court overturned the California district court, ruling that Chaudhry’s estate was entitled to the recovery of damages for the pre-death pain and suffering inflicted as a result of the deprivation of Chaudhry’s federal civil rights. The court stated that the purpose of section 1983 was to provide compensation as a “remedy for killings unconstitutionally caused…by state governments” and to deter law enforcement from committing “abuses of power [while] acting under color of state law.”

The court found that Officer Cruz’s use of excessive force violated Chaudhry’s civil rights causing his death and thus entitling his estate and decedents to recovery. The court further asserted that California’s survival statute restricts compensation so severely that it has “the perverse effect of making it more economically advantageous for a defendant to kill rather than injure his victim.” The court remanded to the district court to determine a reasonable award amount.

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