More than two years ago at a news conference in the Hall of Justice, then-District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis released a portion of police body camera footage showing the fatal shooting of Timothy Smith by San Diego officers in 2015.
Dumanis had ruled the shooting was justified, and the video — along with seven other videos of police shootings — was widely disseminated after the news conference.
That's one reason why it was surprising to lawyers for Smith's family — who are suing the city, Officer Scott Holslag and others over the death— when city lawyers submitted in March more than two dozen videos as part of a motion to throw out the case and wanted the judge to seal the videos from public view.
The city contended the sealing was needed in order to protect the privacy rights of Smith, as well as those of police officers who were not part of the case. Lawyers for Smith's family were taken aback.
"Defendants may not kill a person only to ask the Court for summary disposition of the case by submission of documents not yet produced to plaintiffs, and seek to keep the evidence secret by asserting the dead man's privacy rights," lawyers Eugene Iredale, Julia Yoo and Grace Jun wrote. "Defendants should not be permitted to bury the truth along with the body of Timothy Smith."
U.S. District Court Judge William Q. Hayes agreed, and on Aug. 3 declined both the motion to seal the video and a second motion to throw out the case.The ruling keeps the suit on track, Iredale said.
Gerry Braun, chief of staff for City Attorney Mara Elliott, said the city had sound reasons to ask Hayes to keep the videos private.
"The City wanted the Court to see this body-worn camera footage because it supports our position that the officers acted lawfully and reasonably," he said in an emailed statement Friday. "We argued in court that the evidence should be sealed for two reasons: to safeguard operational security procedures and arrest tactics, and to protect the privacy of witnesses and neighbors, including those who allowed officers into their homes."
Smith, 47, was killed in Pacific Beach on Nov. 4, 2015, after running from police officers, shirtless and wearing a pair of shorts. His wife, Janie Sanders, was being sought for skipping a $7,500 bail in Missouri.
The lawsuit contends that bail agents had fabricated information that both Smith and Sanders were violent felons, and had gotten law enforcement to help look for them, in part by creating a wanted poster on the couple. The poster erroneously said that Smith, who was not wanted on bail, had left Missouri with an AK-47, and that both had a violent history.
Smith had no weapon, and neither had a violent criminal past, though they did have non-violent convictions, Iredale said. About 3 p.m. on the day of the shooting, police spotted Smith on Garnett Avenue, identifying him from the poster.
He fled, eventually running into an alley divided by a fence and hiding in a storage shed. As police on foot and in a helicopter searched the area, he ran from the shed, scaling the fence. As he did so, a police dog clamped on to his foot. Smith was able to shake off the dog, losing a shoe.
He then jumped atop a trash bin in the alley next to an apartment building wall as police closed in, ordering him to surrender. The videos show Smith putting his hands on his waist, perhaps reaching to his pockets and not heeding shouted commands to keep his hands visible.
When she ruled the shooting was justified, Dumanis noted several officers saw Smith reach into his pockets and were concerned he might be reaching for a gun police had been told he had.
Iredale said frame-by-frame still photos from the body-camera video of one officer behind Holslag show Smith turning toward the building wall with his hands up when he was shot.
Dumanis concluded that Holslag had fired in self-defense.
In rejecting the request to seal the videos on the federal case, Hayes concluded that city lawyers had not "articulated a compelling reason that would outweigh the public's interest" in seeing the videos, as well as transcripts of the tapes.