PHOENIX — A federal appeals court on Tuesday reinstated a civil lawsuit against a Pinal County deputy who shot and killed a man after it concluded there are questions about the deputy’s credibility.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said video evidence as well as testimony from other officers at the scene seriously undermine the claims by Heath Rankin that he was justified in shooting Manuel Longoria twice in the back in 2014.
Tuesday’s ruling does not mean Longoria’s relatives win the wrongful-death lawsuit they filed against Rankin and the county. Unless overturned, however, it gives them a chance to make their case to a jury.
But Reinhart, in the 23-page ruling, detailed why jurors might question Rankin’s version of events.
“No other officers saw Longoria assume a ‘shooters stance’ and responded accordingly,” the judge wrote. And Reinhardt also noted there were videos.
“The videos depict Longoria flailing his arms and moving erratically before turning around and raising his empty hands above his head just before Rankin shoots and kills him,” the judge noted.
“These videos provide some of the most important evidence as to what occurred before and during the shooting and what Rankin actually saw.”
If nothing else, Reinhardt said that evidence raises “material questions of fact about the reasonableness of Rankin’s actions and the credibility of his post-hoc justification of his conduct.” And that, the judge said, means U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton erred in dismissing the case outright and not letting it go to a jury.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Navideh Forghani said her agency will not comment on the ruling other than to confirm that Rankin still works for the sheriff’s office.
Court records show the incident began with Longoria, distraught over his relationship with the mother of three of his children, stealing his brother-in-law’s car and driving around Eloy. Police initiated a traffic stop but he fled, leading officers on a 70-minute chase.
Eloy police asked the Sheriff’s Department to be on “standby” in case Longoria left the city. Rankin and his partner joined the pursuit and participated for more than 40 minutes.
During the chase, Longoria stopped several times, even speaking with officers, but ignored their commands to surrender.
At one of those stops, an Eloy detective saw that Longoria was holding a wallet — not a gun — behind his back, with that information both shouted to other officers on the scene and broadcast on a radio frequency Rankin was monitoring. Rankin said he did not hear it.
Eloy police eventually ended the chase by disabling Longoria’s car. Rankin, about a half-block away where he was supposed to help maintain a perimeter, on hearing the crash grabbed his rifle and ran toward the scene.
With eight officers surrounding Longoria, guns drawn, a police sergeant shouted at least twice for officers to use less-than-lethal force. Rankin asserts he did not hear it.
After Rankin stopped sprinting, other officers fired beanbag rounds at Longoria, hitting him. He also was shocked with a Taser.
Longoria, after flinching and moving erratically, turned halfway around to face his car and put his empty hands above his head, his back to the officers and Rankin. Rankin fired two rounds from his rifle into Longoria’s back, killing him.
After the Attorney General’s Office cleared Rankin of criminal wrongdoing, Longoria’s family filed suit. Bolton dismissed it, concluding the department and Rankin were entitled to qualified immunity.
Reinhardt acknowledged police are shielded from civil suit as long as their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” And he said officers are shielded from “mere mistakes in judgment.”
But he said the facts of this case raise questions about the reasonableness of Rankin’s judgment.