A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling Monday that will allow a $10 million civil-rights lawsuit to proceed to trial against King County and a King County sheriff’s deputy in connection with the shooting death of Tommy Le three years ago.
Deputies received reports that Le, a 20-year-old high school student, was brandishing a knife or pointed object and threatening residents of a Burien neighborhood. But after he was shot and killed by Deputy Cesar Molina shortly after midnight on June 13, 2017, Le was found to have only a ballpoint pen on him.
Le’s family filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit that was supposed to go to trial in June 2019.
But less than a week before the trial was to start, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly allowed Molina to appeal his decision not to grant the deputy with “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that routinely protects police officers from liability in instances where they have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions under often difficult and murky circumstances. Zilly also ruled Molina and King County could appeal Zilly’s decision not to grant summary judgment in the case.
At the time, Zilly issued a ruling saying he continues to believe “genuine disputes of material fact” regarding whether Le was armed and posed a threat to the deputy or others precluded him from extending qualified immunity to the deputy. But the judge could not say the deputy’s appeal was “frivolous” under the law.
On June 4, 9th Circuit Judges Ronald Gould, Mary Murguia and Carlos Bea heard oral arguments via livestream video.
The judges ultimately dismissed the appeal Monday after determining they lacked jurisdiction because attorneys for Molina and the county dispute the Le family’s version of events and did not present a question of law for the judges to decide.
The 9th Circuit judges could only consider “purely legal issues” and were required to construe the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, says the four-page ruling.
“Here, Appellants recognize the parties have different versions of the facts, and they spend the argument portion of their brief disputing Le’s version,” the ruling says, referring to legal briefs filed on behalf of Molina and the county. “For example, Appellants contend that Tommy presented an immediate threat to deputies and bystanders because Molina had reason to believe that Tommy was armed.
“Although it is undisputed that Molina had received reports that Tommy was armed with a knife or pointed object, it is highly disputed whether Tommy was actually armed and whether Molina should have known that Tommy was unarmed when Molina encountered and shot Tommy,” says the ruling.
“A giant step in the path to justice for Tommy,” Seattle attorney Jeffery Campiche, one of the lawyers representing the Le family, wrote in an email about the 9th Circuit’s ruling.
Tim Gosselin, a Tacoma attorney representing Molina, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. According to Gosselin’s outgoing phone message, he is currently out of the office.
Information from The Seattle Times archive is included in this story.