The city of Redding has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court a lawsuit in which a Redding man claims his civil rights were violated when he was shot by police in 2018.
Masa Nathaniel Warden is suing the Redding police officers in a civil case demanding damages of $360 million because the officers shot him a total of 17 times during a display of "excessive force" during Warden's arrest in 2018.
But lawyers for the Redding officers say that a provision of the law that exempted one officer on the scene from civil action should also shield the other two officers from Warden's civil lawsuit, filed in 2019.
To clear up what they call a conflicting decision made by a three-judge appeals panel earlier this year, Redding is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to make a final determination.
"I've been here 19 years and we've never petitioned the United States Supreme Court," said Redding City Attorney Barry DeWalt. "So, it's pretty rare."
If the nation's highest court does not agree to hear Redding's case, the decision by the federal appeals panel stands. Then, Warden's civil case against the two officers could proceed.
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In his complaint, Warden said the officers violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Warden, who is Black, said that race was a factor in his shooting by the officers.
He is asking for $120 million in damages from each Redding police officer involved in the shooting incident - Officers Bryan Cowan and Nick Weaver and Corporal Will Williams.
Former police Chief Roger Moore, who retired in 2019, is also named in the suit. Warden said that Moore, as head of the police force and the officers'
superior, "had failed to properly train the officers to avoid these constitutional violations."
It's not known how many requests for cases to be heard before the Supreme Court were filed by inmates, but that's not unusual, according to one legal expert.
"The (U.S.) Supreme Court entertains inmates cases all the time," said criminal defense attorney Dmitriy Shakhnevich, an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The Supreme Court has also ruled on "numerous" inmate cases, said Shakhnevich, which is how "they determine the Constitutional rights that prisoners are afforded." Many of the cases inmates file have been focused on prison conditions, he said.
While the the suit is the first appeal to SCOTUS made by Redding, Supreme Court officials said the nation's highest court receives between 7,000 to 8,000 petitions during a term. Of those, the court said it typically agrees to hear only about 80 cases.
While the Supreme Court considers taking up Redding's case, Warden's civil litigation against the officers remains on hold for 90 days from the time when the request was filed to SCOTUS in early June.
What happened? The police account
According to law enforcement authorities, Warden had attacked a Shasta High School employee before burglarizing a nearby apartment. When approached by an officer on Mary Street in Redding - after being spotted acting suspiciously on the Sacramento River Trail - Warden was "uncooperative," court documents said.
Warden motioned his hands in a way that made Williams, the first officer on the scene, believe that Warden was reaching for a weapon in his waistband, court documents said.
After Warden kept making the same motion and ignoring the officer's commands, the officer fired one round at him and Warden fell to the ground, the police said.
When the two other officers arrived, Williams informed his colleagues that Warden was armed, said DeWalt.
Officials said Warden "continued to be uncooperative, reaching for his waistband," so those officers also shot him as he lay on the ground. "Indeed, a gun can just as easily be fired from the prone position as it can be standing up," said a court document filed by the officers' attorneys in June.
Documents from Warden said he'd been attempting to push himself up off the ground in order to turn his head and once more tell the officers that he was unarmed.
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Once the officers handcuffed and searched Warden, they found he wasn't armed.
Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said in May 2019 that the officers broke no laws in shooting Warden, who was later determined to be a fugitive out of the Las Vegas area. He was sentenced to four years in prison in August 2018, according to the District Attorney's report.
Shooting racially motivated: Warden
The civil lawsuit, which DeWalt said Warden prepared while incarcerated, presents a different version of what happened.
Warden alleged that he was shot by the officers because he is "a Black, African American male." He said he "was not only unarmed but non-threatening as well."
Warden's lawsuit says that on July 23, 2018, he was fired on by one of three officers while he had his hands in the air, "yelling that he was not armed with a weapon of any sort."
"Given recent events around the country involving white police officers shooting other Blacks," Warden said in the civil lawsuit, he was "in fear for his life" and therefore attempting to make it clear he was unarmed.
After being shot the first time, the lawsuit said Warden fell to the ground. All three officers then "proceeded in unison" to shoot him a total of 17 times, his lawsuit says.
He said he was unsure which officer shot first.
During the criminal proceedings following his arrest, Warden was charged with resisting arrest as to all three officers.
He later pleaded no contest to a felony violation of a law prohibiting the use of threats or violence to keep officers from doing their jobs, which applied only to Williams, court documents said. That was in exchange for the dismissal of a no contest plea for misdemeanor violations of resisting arrest that applied only to Cowan and Weaver.
In addition, Warden pleaded no contest to felony violations of making criminal threats and for first-degree residential burglary, according to court documents.
When he self-filed the civil lawsuit a year after the incident, Warden's address was listed as a state facility in Stockton that provides medical and mental health treatment to inmates. Warden said in his filing that he relies on a wheelchair and walker due to injuries from the shooting.
In April, an appeals panel from the Ninth Circuit determined that "given Warden's version of events, we cannot conclude that as a matter of law officers Cowan and Weaver acted objectively reasonably when they shot Warden."
The appeals panel also said "that the question of whether a constitutional violation occurred was a matter for the jury to determine."
Cowan and Weaver are currently on the Redding police force, said DeWalt.
Williams' last day working for the agency was Aug. 21, 2020, according to the city's personnel office.
Williams was arrested in April 2021 in connection with a large-scale marijuana cultivation and distribution operation in Shasta County. A preliminary hearing on Williams' case is scheduled for Sept. 1 in Shasta County Superior Court.
What could SCOTUS hear?
The civil issue that could be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is not exclusively focused on the radically different accounts of what happened to Warden before his arrest in Redding.
Attorneys for the officers are questioning an appeals court determination that has paved the way for Warden's civil lawsuit to go forward against Cowan and Weaver.
The appeals court upheld a determination by a lower court. That decision said Warden couldn't pursue civil action against Williams because he was the only officer named in Warden's no contest plea related to the felony violation.
Officers Cowen and Weaver, who were not named in the felony violation, were not included in the appeals court's determination. So Warden can bring civil charges against those two officers under the decision reached by the appeals court.
DeWalt said none of the officers should face a civil lawsuit from Warden because his story changed.
People bringing lawsuits "can't file a civil case and then to try to argue facts differently than what you agreed to when you plead guilty in the criminal case. So, we're appealing that determination to the Supreme Court," DeWalt said.
The office manager for Brian McComas of San Francisco, Warden's court-appointed attorney since January in the civil case, said that they had no comment on the Warden case "as of right now."
The two officers are being represented by Patrick Deedon and Tracey Werner of the Redding law firm Maire & Deedon.
Michele Chandler covers criminal justice issues for the Redding Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. Follow her on Twitter at @MChandler_RS, call her at 530-338-7753 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support our entire newsroom's commitment to public service journalism by subscribing today.
This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: Redding appeals 'excessive force' police case to U.S. Supreme Court