LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal judge awarded $3 million Wednesday to the parents of a Southern California teen who was fatally shot by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in plainclothes three years ago.
U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald said Wednesday that the DEA agents had reason to believe they were in danger, but it was unreasonable for them to fire at the moving car driven by Zachary Champommier.
The 18-year-old was driving through a Studio City parking lot on June 24, 2010, where members of a drug task force were discussing a search warrant they had just served. Authorities said the agents fired at the teen after he tried to run down a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who was a member of the task force.
Champommier's parents claimed in a wrongful-death lawsuit that the agents recklessly shot at their son, who they contended posed no reasonable threat and had no way of knowing whether he was encountering law enforcement officers.
They said Champommier drove his mom's car to the parking lot to meet someone he befriended on a social networking website. The friend went looking for Champommier's white Corolla and became a suspect when he looked into an agent's light-colored vehicle, which had seized guns and drugs.
Agents were in the process of arresting the friend when the deputy approached the scene with his gun drawn.
Champommier's parents claimed the deputy stepped in front of their son's car and "vaulted" on top of its hood like a Hollywood stuntman.
Fitzgerald wrote that within two seconds of the "low-speed impact" of the collision, DEA agent Peter Taylor LoPresti fired through the driver side of the window from about 2 feet away, killing Champommier.
The judge noted that LoPresti "did not articulate at trial exactly how shooting the driver of a moving vehicle while another officer was on the hood would be helpful to the besieged officer."
He found that five subsequent shots fired by LoPresti and the deputy "unquestionably lacked justification."
Champommier's parents said they were gratified by the ruling.
"The finding that the shooting was unjustified was what we wanted; we wanted justice in this case," said Cara Eisenberg, an attorney for the teen's mother, Carol Champommier.
The government said it was reviewing the ruling and will consider whether to file an appeal.
"The ruling does not change our position that Champommier struck an LASD deputy with his car, and Agent LoPresti reasonably used deadly force to deal with the dangerous situation," the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement.