Court reinstates suit against Pinal deputy who fatally shot unarmed man

A federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit against a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy who shot an unarmed man twice in the back after a 2014 car chase through Eloy. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court said a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy must face a lawsuit brought by the family of an unarmed man he shot twice in the back in Eloy in 2014.

The Tuesday decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower court, which had thrown out the case against Deputy Heath Rankin on the grounds that he enjoyed qualified immunity in the shooting of Manuel Longoria.

The appeals court said there were too many “material, disputed facts” in the case that need to be put before a jury. Those include whether Rankin heard other officers’ calls for use of “less lethal” force and whether Longoria, surrounded by police officers, adopted a threatening “shooter’s stance” and “posed an immediate threat” warranting deadly force before Rankin opened fire.

A sheriff’s office spokesman declined comment, noting that the case is still pending. Calls seeking comment from the attorneys representing the Longorias were not immediately returned Wednesday.

According to court documents, the case began on Jan. 14, 2014, when Longoria, distraught over his relationship with the mother of his three children, stole his brother-in-law’s car and began driving around Eloy.

That began a police chase that lasted more than 70 minutes and involved officers from Eloy and backup from the sheriff’s department – who were mistakenly told Longoria was armed.

During the chase, Longoria was reportedly “erratic,” throwing money and objects out of the car, gesturing to people on the street and stopping several times to speak with pursuing officers, before getting back in the car and driving off again.

In one stop, he held up and kissed rosary beads and in another he held his wallet behind his back – which one Eloy officer noted, and alerted other officers to the fact that it was a wallet, not a weapon, Longoria was holding. Rankin was monitoring the police radio channel, but said he did not hear that dispatch.

Court documents say Longoria alternated between joking with officers that they might scratch their cars during the chase and telling officers that “he had nothing to live for and wanted to die,” at one point making a gun with his fingers and pointing it at his head.

The sheriff’s deputies were called off shortly before the end of the chase and ordered to set up a perimeter. But when Eloy police stopped Longoria by crashing into his car, Rankin ran toward the scene.

Longoria, surrounded by eight officers with guns drawn, initially refused officers orders to show his hands. An Eloy officer shouted at least twice to other officers to use “less lethal” force, and eventually they shot Longoria with several bean bag rounds and a taser.

Video recordings of the standoff show Longoria disoriented by the assault and quickly throwing his empty hands in the air as he turned toward his car.

But Rankin, who was farther away than the other officers, said he did not hear the order for nonlethal force. He said he saw Longoria go into a “shooter’s stance,” and he opened fire with what the court described as an assault rifle, hitting Longoria twice in the back.

Longoria’s family and his estate sued for wrongful death and use of excessive force, but a district court judge sided with Rankin, saying he enjoyed qualified immunity for his actions.

The appeals court disagreed, saying there were too many questions about whether Rankin’s use of deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances.

“A jury must determine Rankin’s credibility in light of conflicting accounts from his partner, other officers, Longoria’s expert and the videos in real time,” said the ruling by Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

A jury could decide that Rankin “had reason to use deadly force” or it could find his statements not credible and rule that he violated Longoria’s rights. But Reinhardt said that should be left to the jury, and that courts “may not usurp the jury’s role as arbiters of fact.”