The City of Gilroy could have to pay as much as $1.25 million in damages after a federal civil jury Tuesday found a Gilroy police officer was negligent when he fatally shot a 33-year-old man four years ago on Pacheco Pass.
The jury’s verdict determined that the GPD is responsible for damages and legal bills for the family of Gurmit Singh, the man who was fatally shot on Feb. 8, 2008. In 2009, Singh’s family sued the City of Gilroy after a county criminal grand jury cleared Gilroy Police Cpl. Eustaquio “Paco” Rodriguez of any charges in July 2008 because of a lack of evidence to indict, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
After a three-week trial that began March 12, the eight-person jury spent five days deliberating before coming to a unanimous decision – a decision the city will likely appeal, Councilman Perry Woodward said. The city has 60 days to appeal.
The GPD has fully backed Rodriguez’ actions publicly, saying that he behaved appropriately and in self-defense. Rodriguez, who has been on the Gilroy police force since 2002, is still employed by GPD, and was promoted to corporal in April 2011, Gilroy Police Captain Jim Gillio said.
“We are very disappointed at the verdict and do not share the jury’s determination that Corporal Rodriguez should be faulted in any way for this,” said Police Chief Denise Turner in a press release. Turner also wrote in the press release that Rodriguez’ actions were “within department policy” and “justifiable.”
Turner has not returned requests for further comment.
Other city and GPD officials were tight-lipped about the case on Wednesday, but echoed Turner’s reaction of disappointment and disapproval in the jury’s decision.
Gillio said that because Rodriguez did exactly what he should have in a dangerous situation, according to police procedure, the GPD has made no changes to protocol.
Woodward said he was surprised at the jury’s decision.
“This is very bad news,” Woodward said. “From everything I know about the case, the officer involved did everything he could to avoid having to shoot the guy who attacked him.”
Woodward said that he thought that Rodriguez “did everything by the book” the night that Singh was shot, and that he thought that would be apparent in trial.
“But juries do unpredictable things,” he said.
Jury foreman Lyle Wilkinson, 49, of Sunnyvale, said that the Singh shooting was a long and difficult case with lots of conflicting testimony, but he is ultimately at peace with the unanimous decision the jury made.
Wilkinson said that the eight-person jury was diverse and had four men and four women. He said that the jury began the deliberation completely undecided, and had “people coming from all different viewpoints,” but small decisions were made along the way that led them to their verdict. He said that personally, the evidence that pointed to Rodriguez’ negligence was that fact that he was on his cell phone when he shot Singh.
“It wasn’t like one of these things where there were 12 angry men,” he said, referring to the jury’s initial neutrality to the case.
Andrew Faber is the city attorney but was not involved in the case; instead the city contracted the case out to attorney Tim Schmal of Burton, Schmal & DiBenedetto LLP out of Santa Cruz.
When contacted via email, Schmal said that Gillio asked him not to comment on the case.
In February 2008, Rodriguez was driving westbound on Highway 152 around 7:30 p.m. in an unmarked Crown Victoria on an hour-long drive back to Gilroy from Gustine in Merced County, where he served a subpoena. He spotted Gurmit Singh lying in the roadway with his head over the white line, according to court documents. Singh’s family had picked him up in Fresno after he became ill, and were driving him to the Bay Area when they got into a violent dispute, according to court records. Singh began beating his brother-in-law, who was driving, and his father-in-law, who was seated next to Singh in the backseat. The driver pulled over and dropped Singh off on Highway 152 about one mile west of San Felipe Road, and pulled over to the nearest call box on Highway 152.
According to court records, Rodriguez saw Singh lying on the side of the road, and saw the vehicle parked ahead of him, and guessed it was a domestic dispute.
“It was pretty dark…I didn’t know what I was going into, so I immediately withdrew my weapon,” Rodriquez testified in court.
When Rodriguez, who was dressed in full department uniform, stopped to help the man, Singh attacked in a “football tackle-like position,” according to court documents.
“Get on the ground,” Rodriguez shouted twice at Singh. When he didn’t stop charging – Rodriguez testified that it appeared that Singh was going to grab his gun – he fired two shots in rapid succession in his stomach.
Rodriguez testified that he fired the gun with his right hand since his left hand was up to his ear because Rodriguez was on the phone with GPD Detective Hugo Del Moral during the incident, which was one piece of evidence that pointed the jury toward the negligence finding.
“A big aspect of this case was Rodriguez was on his cell phone the entire time,” said Singh’s family attorney Karen Snell over the phone Wednesday morning. Snell said that Singh was unarmed. Singh had several inches and about 40 pounds on the small-framed Rodriguez, investigators approximated.
There was one eyewitness. Jan Weber was driving west on Highway 152 to go home for the weekend when he saw Singh’s body in the road and dialed 911.
Snell said that Weber testified that he saw Singh and Rodriguez standing six to eight feet apart for a few seconds before shots were fired. Rodriguez’ shots can be heard over the 911 transcript.
Rodriguez testified that he did not attempt to administer first aid, despite being a trained Emergency Medical Technician, because of how violent Singh acted toward him. Instead, he kept his revolver aimed at Singh until back-up officers arrived.
Three GPD officers, Sgt. Wes Stanford, Stuart Jaquez and Royce Heath were the first to arrive on the scene about eight minutes later. Despire being shot twice, Singh was still combative, according Jaquez’ testimony, so Jaquez used his taser on Singh to subdue him.
After Singh was handcuffed, police gave him medical attention, all while Singh was thrashing and kicking, court records read. Singh was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time, Snell said.
He was taken by helicopter to a hospital, but died from his wounds at 11:30 that night.
Paramjit Kaur, Singh’s wife, sued the city for seven claims of relief, saying that city is responsible for Singh’s death because the officer was negligent, was negligently trained, used excessive force when Singh was shot and killed, was indifferent to his medical needs and violated Singh’s civil rights. She also sued the city for the actions of the three back-up officers on the same counts, but the jury found them to be not responsible based on the evidence provided.
The jury also found Singh negligent, and decided that he was 50 percent responsible for his own death, but even with that verdict, they found $1.25 million to be the amount the City of Gilroy should pay to Singh’s wife and children.
“People appreciate what a difficult job the police have, so while we ask for punitive damages, no one thought that Rodriguez was an evil person,” Snell said. “It’s just that he was reckless and cost a man his life.”
Prior to his death, Singh resided in Washington, near Seattle, and made a living as a truck driver. He left behind his wife and two small children, a 5-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. Originally from the Punjab region of India, he came to the United States more than 10 years ago, Navdeep Gurpal, a cousin of Singh’s wife, told the Dispatch in 2008.
Kaur did not want to be contacted but released the following statement through her lawyer.
“No amount of money can bring Gurmit back and we continue to mourn his loss. We are grateful to court for giving us a fair trial, to our lawyers for their hard work and to the jury for providing to him what he would have provided.”
Snell said that Singh’s family’s attorney fees are not included in the $1.25 million in damages, which will add “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to Gilroy’s bill.
Since the city’s defendant attorney fees were covered by insurance, City Administrator Tom Haglund said he did not know how much those fees were.
The next step for the City of Gilroy, according to Woodward and others, is to examine the jury’s decision for any holes or errors in the trial, and assess whether or not the issue should be taken back to court for further litigation.