SAN JOSE. In a landmark verdict that is among the toughest of its kind in the nation, a federal jury awarded $21 million in damages to the family of 16-year-old Elena Mondragon, who was fatally shot by Fremont police more than five years ago.
Friday night, a seven-member jury found that three Frémont officers acted negligently during a covert operation in Hayward that ended with the officers firing their rifles at a moving BMW, killing Mondragon, who was a passenger in the car. Lawyers for the city told jurors that the driver, not the police, was responsible for her death.
The City of Fremont will receive about $10.2 million of that amount, in what is likely to be the largest single payment from a lawsuit against the city’s police department in its history. The man who allegedly drove the BMW was ordered to pay the remaining amount.
“We hope this verdict sends a signal that police departments need to humble themselves in the face of societal demands to do better,” said Adante Poynter, a lawyer for Mondragon’s mother.
This is one of the largest payouts for police killings, more than many similar incidents that have made national headlines. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resulted in a $27 million lawsuit settlement, while Breonna Taylor’s family settled a $12 million lawsuit with Louisville, Kentucky police, for example. Last December, an Austin jury awarded $67 million to the family of a man killed by police, and three months ago, a San Diego jury returned an $85 million verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging police beat a man to of death.
In the Bay Area, a recent lawsuit settlement includes up to $7.3 million for officers in Pittsburgh who knelt on a man and didn’t notice he was dying within minutes, as well as cumulative payments to families of $9.4 million dollars. two men killed by the same Contra Costa sheriff’s deputy within three years.
Police killing trials rarely make it to court in the Bay Area. This is one of the things that made Mondragon’s case unique.
Mondragon, a resident of Antioch, was one of four people in a car driven by 19-year-old Rico Tiger, who authorities say was responsible for numerous violent armed robberies in Fremont and the Bay Area. The South Alameda County Major Crimes Task Force, comprised of representatives from several law enforcement agencies, tracked a stolen BMW Tiger as it drove into the City View apartment complex in Hayward on March 14, 2017.
Tiger was charged with the murder of Mondragon under the state’s entrapment doctrine, which holds that people are held accountable when someone else uses lethal self-defense. The case is still pending.
Fremont Sgt. Jeremy Miskella and Officer Officers Gaylan Chahuati and Joel Hernandez were part of the task force that planned to block Tiger’s car in the parking lot at the complex with an undercover police minivan and arrest him.
After the officers saw Tiger returning to the car with Mondragon and two others, Chahuati, the officers were slightly delayed by a resident entering the parking lot. The tiger began to pull out of the parking space as Chahuati jerked the van nose-to-nose with the BMW bumper, chirped the siren briefly, and Hernandez activated the police headlights in the visor, Patrick Moriarty, the officers’ lawyer, said. during the trial.
Sergeant Jeremy Miskella rode slightly behind the van in a Honda Pilot. The officers then got out of the vehicles, Miskella and Hernandez pointed their rifles at the BMW, and the officers gave orders to Tiger, Moriarty said.
The tiger reversed the BMW, started the engine, and then tried to escape by squeezing the BMW through the small space between the police cars and the carport with cars parked in it.
Hernandez, who said he thought Chahuati had been killed, fired his rifle twice at a passing car, while Miskella fired five shots from his rifle.
One of Miskella’s shots hit Mondragon, who was in the front passenger seat of the BMW, cutting through her chest and lodged in her spine. According to medical records, she died from her injuries that night during emergency surgery. Medical officials later confirmed that Mondragon was pregnant at the time of her death.
During the trial, lawyers for Moriarty and John Robinson stated that Mondragon’s death was a tragedy, but not something the officers were responsible for. They highlighted the recklessness of Tiger, who remains in Dublin’s Santa Rita Prison awaiting trial. To prove murder, the Alameda County District Attorney’s office disputes the legal theory that officers used legal force due to Tiger’s actions, leaving him criminally responsible for her death. He pleaded not guilty.
The jury ultimately decided after about two days of deliberation that Tiger was 51% responsible for Mondragon’s death and 25% responsible for Miskella. The jury decided that Chahuati and Hernandez were 12% responsible for this, according to lawyers for the Mondragon family and a spokesman for the city of Fremont.
“This verdict is a monument to justice,” Pointer said in an interview Friday night.
“I think this verdict shows that our community is not willing to give officers the right to behave recklessly and then subsequently take the position that they cannot be held responsible for their reckless behavior,” Pointer said.
The city can still appeal the verdict.