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Napa County, sheriff's deputy named in wrongful death civil rights lawsuit
Litigation

Napa County, sheriff's deputy named in wrongful death civil rights lawsuit

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An Oakland law firm announced Tuesday that it has filed a federal wrongful death civil rights lawsuit against Napa County and a sheriff's deputy for what it called an "unprovoked killing" of a man pulled over for driving without his headlights on.

Juan Adrian Garcia, 47, was shot after a highway stop at Highway 221 and Kaiser Road on Oct. 5, 2020, and died the next day at Queen of the Valley Medical Center. The lawsuit follows a claim for damages filed against the county in January.

“This unprovoked killing of an unarmed, non-threatening man, followed by their lack of transparency, is a terrible violation of Mr. Garcia’s and his family’s constitutional rights,” Michael Haddad, an attorney with the law firm Haddad & Sherwin, said in a news release.

Citing a body camera video of the incident, Attorney Julia Sherwin said that the sheriff's deputy, Sgt. David Ackman, "overreacted and mishandled this situation from the beginning."

"Juan was clearly confused about what the sergeant wanted from him, given the sergeant’s complete failure to communicate with him. Then the Sergeant unloaded six bullets at Juan in rapid succession, without any warning," said Sherwin, who accused Ackman of panicking.

Napa County and the Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

On Oct. 5, Ackman stopped Garcia’s vehicle after seeing its headlights were off, Sheriff John Robertson said following the shooting. A minute-long body camera video later released by the Sheriff’s Office shows Garcia pulling off to the roadside, opening the driver-side door and then throwing his cellphone over the car’s roof, still seated, as Ackman points his gun at the vehicle.

Garcia can be seen emerging from his vehicle with Ackman’s gun still trained on him, then ambling toward Ackman before slowly placing both of his hands behind his back.

Ackman holsters his gun and can be heard telling Garcia to turn around, believing Garcia meant for Ackman to handcuff him, Robertson said during an October news conference. But Garcia does not heed Ackman’s calls to do so and again starts to walk toward Ackman, leaving only one of his hands behind his back.

Then Ackman redraws his gun and once more points his flashlight toward Garcia, who can be seen taking a step backward and then hesitating for a moment. Garcia then begins walking once more — the footage does not make clear in which direction — and Ackman circles his police vehicle, backing away from Garcia and walking toward the front of his car.

Fifty-one seconds into the video, Ackman again points his gun at Garcia, this time from over the hood of his vehicle. Garcia then begins to walk toward Ackman, who shouts for Garcia to stop.

Ackman’s two subsequent cries of “Stop!” then escalate in their urgency: Garcia continues to approach Ackman, who then fired six successive shots at Garcia over the span of three seconds. Five bullets hit Garcia in the torso and one in the leg, Robertson said during the Oct. 14 news conference where the video was shown.

Garcia was a resident of Napa County for more than 25 years and lived in the City of Napa with his partner/wife Eva Lopez and their three sons, attorneys filing the lawsuit said.

"The video reveals that Sergeant Ackman exited his vehicle with his gun drawn and immediately pointed it at Mr. Garcia, a very high level of force to use against a non-threatening man suspected of a simple vehicle infraction," Haddad & Sherwin said in a news release. "Mr. Garcia exited his vehicle with his hands empty, which Sergeant Ackman could clearly see since Mr. Garcia and his vehicle were well illuminated by the headlights of Sergeant Ackman’s patrol vehicle," the release said.

"Sergeant Ackman chose to use unlawful deadly force against Mr. Garcia, in violation of his duties to ensure that any use of deadly force was both necessary and in response to an immediate threat of death or serious injury. Ackman also failed to give Mr. Garcia a legally required warning before," the attorneys contend.

"Sergeant Ackman chose not to use his vehicle for cover if he felt threatened by Mr. Garcia, nor to order Mr. Garcia to show his hands or get on the ground, nor to use any less-lethal alternatives to deadly force. This tragic use of deadly force was completely unjustified," the family's attorneys said.

The county's Major Crimes Task Force has not yet issued a report of its investigation of the shooting. When it does, it will take another six months for the Napa County District Attorney to decide whether to bring criminal charges against Ackman, the lawsuit contends.

These long timelines are effectively preventing the family's attorneys from obtaining facts that would ideally be included in a wrongful death lawsuit, the complaint says.

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages and compensatory damages. 

Garcia’s death was the second fatal shooting in less than six months involving the Sheriff’s Office. Last May, Deputy Gregg Lee shot and killed 24-year-old Brandan Reid Nylander after Nylander led officers on a vehicle pursuit and then emerged from his car holding a shotgun.

In December, Napa County District Attorney Allison Haley decided that Lee would not be charged criminally. “The use of deadly force by Deputy Lee was a reasonable and lawful response under the totality of the circumstances,” her office announced.

In March, Nylander's relatives filed a federal lawsuit against Napa County, and the sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot him alleging the use of “excessive and unreasonable” force in the Napan’s death.

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You can reach City Editor Kevin Courtney at kcourtney@napanews.com or at 707-256-2217. 

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City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.

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