By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — Two California Highway Patrol officers acted in self-defense when they fatally shot a suicidal South San Francisco man who had led them on a high-speed chase and then walked toward them holding a large rock on his head, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
"The fact that (Kamal) Lal was intent on 'suicide by cop' did not mean that the officers had to endanger their own lives," the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in upholding a federal judge's dismissal of a lawsuit by Lal's widow and daughter.
Lal's wife called police in March 2005 to report that he had just struck her. The CHP spotted his pickup truck on U.S. 101 and pursued him on and off the freeway for 45 minutes from Redwood City to Brisbane and back south at speeds ranging from 50 to 100 mph. When an officer reached him by cell phone, Lal, a 43-year-old car rental agent, said he wanted to kill himself.
Officers used a spike strip to halt the pickup in a ditch alongside the freeway in Belmont. With about a dozen officers on the scene, according to his family's lawyer, Lal first put his hands up, then told a CHP officer to shoot him. He smashed a rock against his forehead several times and started throwing stones at the officers, the court said. When he walked toward two officers carrying a football-size rock on top of his head and ignored a command to stop, the court said, they shot him eight times.
In the lawsuit, Lal's family argued that the officers could have seized him earlier in the confrontation by using pepper spray and that a jury should decide whether they used excessive force.
But U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton dismissed the suit without a trial, finding that the officers had acted reasonably to protect themselves, and the appeals court agreed.
The patrolmen had little choice, Judge Consuelo Callahan said in the 3-0 ruling. Lal apparently was about to hurl the rock at them, pepper spray would not have stopped him at that point, and they could not let him walk back onto the freeway and endanger others, Callahan said. Even if they might have found a way to give him a wider berth, she said, "there is no requirement that such an alternative be explored."
The family is considering a further appeal, said attorney Charles Ralston.
Copyright 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle
McClatchy-Tribune News Service