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Officer did not identify on knock and talk before killing person inside home

Facts

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Video and audio footage from body cameras worn by Officers Casanova and Panah is available below in the hyperlinks:

Cassanova

Panah

On October 17, 2018, at approximately 1:20 a.m., Charles Roundtree, Jr., Davante Snowden, and Taylor Singleton were visiting Hence Williams’ home at 217 Roberts Street in San Antonio, Texas. Singleton was at Williams’ home because Snowden had asked her to meet him there, after work, to drive him home. But Snowden, who kept his dog at Williams’ house, wanted to allow the dog enough time to eat before he and Singleton departed. While waiting, Snowden and Singleton sat in the living room with Roundtree, listening to music. Singleton also was looking at her smartphone, whereas Snowden, according to Singleton, was half asleep. Williams was in his bedroom with Michelle Martinez.

Meanwhile, San Antonio Police Officer Steve Casanova, along with Officers Alexander Garza and James Panah, were outside planning to conduct a knock and talk investigation at Williams’ house, which they reportedly believed to be a drug house. According to Casanova, the visit was for the purpose of investigating an alleged assault upon Esteban Preciado that had occurred approximately 15 minutes earlier. Having flagged down Casanova whilst he was patrolling the area (in his police vehicle), Maria Herrera told Casanova that a young black man had punched Preciado, her husband, in the mouth because he had parked (on the street) outside the man’s aunt’s house while Herrera was delivering food to a neighboring home.

Herrera described the assailant as a tall and skinny young black man, 20–25 years old, having “no hair” and wearing a gray sweater and blue jeans. Though Casanova claims that Herrera identified Preciado’s assailant as having come from 217 Roberts Street, she never identified a specific house in the video. In any event, Casanova surmised that the man was inside Williams’ house, at 217 Roberts Street, and told Herrara and Preciado that he would try to catch the guy. Casanova also told Herrera that, if he could not catch the guy, he would give them a case number so that they could submit a report.

Shortly thereafter, Casanova, followed by Officer Panah, opened and walked through Williams’ front gate. Traversing the front yard, Casanova shined his flashlight on the outside of the house, which was dark, as he approached the front porch. His light revealed a middle-aged black man, John Cotton, eating while sitting on the front porch. Approaching Cotton, Casanova asked if he lived there and if he knew who was staying there. When Cotton said he did not, Casanova asked Cotton to remove his cap, which he did, showing his hair. Casanova then said that he recognized Cotton.

Without questioning Cotton any further, Casanova crossed the porch and approached the house’s two front doors, which were located on abutting walls. The doorway to Casanova’s left had an outer screen door and inner solid door with a curved window at the top; the doorway to his right had an outer wrought iron door and an inner wooden door with no window. Upon finding the screen door to be locked, Casanova turned to the right, reaching through an opening in the outer wrought iron door, to knock three times on the closed inner door with his right hand.

On the third knock, the door opened. The parties dispute whether Casanova pushed the door open or whether it swung open solely as a result of Casanova’s knocks. In any event, as the door swung open, Casanova’s flashlight shone directly into the house’s living room, which was illuminated by a ceiling light in the center of the room. At that point, Casanova observed Roundtree sitting on a chair (situated to Casanova’s left), whereas Snowden and Singleton sat on either end of an adjacent couch situated between Roundtree’s chair and the house’s front wall. The living room furniture on which the three sat faced the front doorway, where Casanova stood outside the closed iron door. Beyond being thin, young, black males, neither Roundtree nor Snowden matched Herrera’s description of her husband’s assailant.

Instead of identifying himself as a police officer upon knocking on the front door, or when it swung open, Casanova simply said: “What’s up, man?” At that point, seemingly not realizing that Casanova was a police officer, Snowden, allegedly attempting to see better, quickly stood and stepped toward the front door. At the same time, he exclaimed: “Hey, who the fuck is this?” Singleton remained seated on the couch but, allegedly attempting to better illuminate the area where Casanova stood, pointed the front, lighted side of her phone toward the front door.

According to Snowden and Singleton, they were unable to see who was at the door, or that Casanova wore a police uniform, because they were “blinded” by the beam from Casanova’s flashlight. Singleton said that all she could see of the person at the door was “a beanie.” Also, Snowden has a bad eye and can’t really see that good. Notably, Casanova admits (in his deposition testimony) that at first, Snowden did not know who he Casanova was. And referencing Snowden’s “who the fuck is this” query, Casanova testified: “He looked at me and then I guess it took him awhile to realize that that I was an officer.”

As Snowden began to walk forward and across the living room, Casanova suddenly yelled: “Let me see your fucking hands.” At almost precisely the same time, Casanova fired two shots, in quick succession, into the living room. Upon seeing Casanova’s gun, Snowden turned right, away from Casanova, reportedly in an effort to retreat to safety in the rear of the house. But he was not quick enough. Casanova’s first bullet entered and exited Snowden’s left buttock before also grazing his right buttock. The bullet then continued past Singleton’s head (who still sat on the sofa) before becoming lodged in the wall behind her. Tragically, Casanova’s second bullet hit Roundtree squarely in the chest.

After the second shot was fired, Casanova left the house’s front doorway. Snowden, unaware that the shooter was a police officer and that other officers were outside, quickly shut the front door and followed Singleton to the kitchen where Roundtree had collapsed. The two remained there with Roundtree, futilely trying to stop his bleeding with Snowden’s jacket, until the police ordered them out of the house.

Immediately following the shooting, Casanova and Panah fell back to a position of cover in the street with Casanova claiming that Snowden had a fucking gun and had pulled it out. As he ran away from the house, Casanova also yelled: “Shots fired! Shots fired!” though he actually was the only person to have discharged a firearm. Then Casanova and another officer went to their vehicles in order to obtain their AR rifles and put on their “bullet-proof” vests.

Yet no gun (other than those held or worn by police officers) is visible in the video footage from the cameras worn by Casanova and Panah. And no one, other than Casanova, ever claimed to have seen a gun inside the house, even after watching Casanova’s video. However, officers later claimed to have found a gun (that night) in the back yard of 217 Roberts Street and a matching magazine inside the house’s bedroom. They assumed that it was the gun that Casanova professed to have seen, but it lacked Snowden’s fingerprints or DNA.

Casanova does not disagree with many of the facts proffered by Singleton and Snowden, including that he never verbally identified himself as a police officer. But he also contends that he, from his position outside the wrought iron door, scanned the three occupants in the living room, sensed the immediate presence of danger, and concluded that the individual [Snowden] seated directly in front of him—about six feet away matched the description of the assailant. According to Casanova: Within seconds of his “What’s up, man?” greeting, Snowden suddenly turned confrontational, rising from the couch saying: ‘Hey, who the fuck is this?’” while reaching for a weapon in his waistband. At that point, Casanova maintains that he yelled: “Hey! Let me see your fucking hands!” unholstered his gun, and fired two shots at Snowden as he moved swiftly to the right [Casanova’s left] and did not obey Casanova’s command to show his hands.

According to Snowden, however, the noise of the gun shots precluded him from hearing any instruction from Casanova. A week later, Snowden was arrested and charged with felony possession of a firearm. He spent 10 months in jail until he was acquitted by a jury. Thereafter, Singleton, Bernice, and Snowden sued Casanova and the City of San Antonio, Texas, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contending that Casanova had utilized excessive force against them. Casanova filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal on the basis of qualified immunity, which the district court denied. The 5th affirmed.

Analysis

First, we agree with the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs’ version of events is not so blatantly contradicted by video or photographic evidence that no reasonable jury could believe it. Second, to the extent that Casanova asks that we review the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the factual disputes that the district court has determined to be genuine, in addition to evaluating their materiality, we cannot. Third, we likewise are not persuaded that the district court erred insofar as it concluded that a given course of conduct would be objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law.

Considering that the “crime at issue” here was simple assault, we find no fault in the district court’s determination that the first Graham factor—the “severity of the crime at issue” —militates against a conclusion that Casanova’s use of force was objectively reasonable. With respect to the second and third Graham factors—whether “the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he actively resisted arrest or attempted to evade arrest by flight” —we also agree with the district court’s materiality determinations.

Specifically, if a jury, upon considering the relevant evidence and making necessary credibility determinations, were to find that Snowden did not possess a gun, did not grasp or reach for anything in a manner suggesting that he had a gun, walked calmly (or at least not aggressively) toward the doorway in which Casanova stood, and was turning to walk away from Casanova when the officer fired two shots, without prior warning, in Snowden’s direction, the officer’s conduct, absent other extenuating circumstances, would not have been objectively reasonable.

Furthermore, a reasonable officer in Casanova’s position would have known, on October 17, 2018, that using deadly force in those circumstances (against the occupants of 217 Roberts Street) would violate the Fourth Amendment. In other words, then-applicable law would have given a reasonable officer “fair warning” that such conduct was unlawful.

Although Casanova ultimately might be entitled to prevail against the plaintiffs regarding the objective reasonableness of his conduct, he presently cannot on this record.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/22/22-50327.0.pdf