Officers’ 29 fatal shots justified, finds DA

Six Santa Clara County law enforcement officers legally defended themselves and others when they fired 29 shots that killed an unarmed suspect in a restaurant parking lot in Sunnyvale last year, according to prosecutors.

The District Attorney’s Office found that the officers were lawfully justified in shooting 34-year-old Juan Carlos Ruelas, who had said he had a gun and appeared to reach to his waistband during an undercover drug arrest operation, Supervising District Attorney James Leonard said.

The six officers, some with fast-shooting semi-automatic handguns, fired two volleys of gunshots in a matter of seconds at Ruelas, who was hit by all 29 bullets they discharged at him, Leonard said.

Police officers have the legal right to use deadly force if they have “an honest and reasonable belief” that they or others faced an imminent bodily threat from the suspect and they had to “do what is necessary to negate that threat,” Leonard said.

The office issued its findings in the officers-involved shooting today in a 64-page report that included summaries of statements from 28 peace officers and 18 civilians and an autopsy that found Ruelas had 33 bullet wounds, nine of them in his head.

On Sept. 4, 2013, the special crimes action team of the Santa Clara Police Department made plans to arrest Ruelas on illegal drug sales charges after he sold methamphetamine to undercover police Detective Travis Niesen on five occasions, prosecutors said.

Niesen had convinced Ruelas to sell him a pound of meth in exchange for $10,000 cash and arranged to meet him that day near a Shell gas station at 776 N. Mathilda Ave. in Sunnyvale, prosecutors reported.

Among the authorities assigned to assist in the arrest of Ruelas were Santa Clara police, a sheriff’s deputy, officers from the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety and agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, according to the report.

In a briefing prior to the “buy bust” operation, Niesen told members of the team that a confidential informant who knew Ruelas said that he possessed a 9mm handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle hidden inside a Ford pickup he owned in Sunnyvale and had threatened to shoot people in the past, according to prosecutors.

At about 2 p.m., after Ruelas arrived at the gas station in a white Dodge pickup truck, the detective, who was wearing a hidden wire to communicate with officers, called the suspect on a cell phone and asked him to meet instead in the rear parking lot of Hobee’s restaurant next to the station.

Ruelas agreed and pulled over behind Hobee’s to a thoroughfare in the lot, blocking Niesen’s car, refused to park in a parking space and did not get out of the pickup. The detective noticed that Ruelas seemed to be high on drugs and agitated, authorities said.

The suspect handed over a box wrapped in plastic and yelled “Give me the money!” to Niesen, who took the box to his car, opened it and found it contained what appeared to be methamphetamine, according to the report.

Niesen, who was not wearing a bullet-proof vest, then said into the wire the codeword “Tahoe” to signal the officers to go in for the arrest, knowing that it would take up to 15 seconds for them to get there.

The detective tried to stall for time and get the suspect to exit the truck, but an agitated Ruelas shouted “I got a gun, don’t do anything stupid” at him and again demanded the money, prosecutors reported.

Niesen, who could not see a gun, responded by saying, “You got a gun? Dude, why did you bring a gun?” into the wire to alert other officers the suspect might be armed, according to the report.

The detective told investigators he next noticed Ruelas reaching with his left hand toward his left pocket near his waistband and thinking the suspect was reaching for a gun and putting him and other officers in danger, Niesen stepped back, drew his gun and fired several times at the suspect.

A Santa Clara police sergeant and a sheriff’s deputy, after hearing the arrest signal, had driven their mini-van to block Ruelas’ truck.

The sergeant saw Ruelas’ left shoulder dip down and after hearing Niesen’s gunfire and thinking it was a gunfight, also fired at Ruelas to protect Niesen, prosecutors claimed.

The sheriff’s deputy then fired one shot and another Santa Clara police detective who approached after hearing the arrest codeword, heard someone say “Left hand, gun, secure hands,” told Ruelas not to move and after seeing the suspect lift his left hand, also fired at Ruelas.

At the same time, two other Santa Clara police detectives, who also told investigators they heard someone mention a gun, shot Ruelas. In the first barrage, Niesen and the sergeant fired 12 bullets and the other four officers shot 17 rounds in the second one, Leonard said.

Ruelas was removed from the truck and police attempted to render first aid, but he was not breathing and died, prosecutors said. Officers did not find a firearm in his Dodge pickup, according to the report.

The district attorney’s office, which investigates officer-involved shootings in the county, launched a probe into the incident. The autopsy by the county medical examiner’s office found Ruelas’ blood tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine, according to investigators.

The D.A.’s review of the legality of the shooting centered on whether the use of deadly force by the six officers was legally justified under state Penal Code 197, according to the report.

The district attorney’s office also examined recent U.S. Supreme Court cases on officer-involved shootings. In one case, Martinez v. County of Los Angeles in 1996, the Supreme Court said the standard of “reasonable” action by police in dangerous situations with a possible assailant is “comparatively generous” to officers, according to Leonard.

The court said in the same case that judges could not require police to hold their fire to determine if a suspect would murder or injure the officer, according to the report.

In another case, Anderson v. Russell, from 2001, the high court ruled that a police officer “is entitled to use deadly force when the officer has the reason to believe the suspect is armed, even if the officer cannot confirm that the suspect is actually armed,” Leonard wrote.

The district attorney’s office concluded that the six officers “acted in lawful self-defense when they fatally shot Juan Ruelas,” Leonard wrote:

“Their conduct was therefore justifiable and no criminal liability attaches to them.”