In a rare ruling against a federal law enforcement officer, a judge in Los Angeles on Wednesday found an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent committed battery when he shot and killed an 18-year-old man in the parking lot of a San Fernando Valley strip mall in 2010.
U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald awarded the parents of Zachary Champommier $3 million dollars in general damages. Champommier had graduated from Granada Hills High School three weeks before his death.
“I am pleased with the verdict,” said Carol Champommier as her son's friends gathered outside a federal courthouse in downtown L.A. “Its not about the dollar amount. Its about justice.”
The incident occurred as plainclothes DEA agents and L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies gathered outside a Studio City restaurant after serving a search warrant on a nearby house. The officers were in the process of detaining a man Champommier was coming to meet.
Witnesses said that as Champommier started to drive away, he struck a sheriff’s deputy. Federal attorneys argued that DEA agent Peter LoPresti shot Champommier because he believed he was a threat. The sheriff’s deputy also fired his weapon.
“The shooting was justified,” U.S. Attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek said. “The agent had a split second to determine whether or not there was a threat posed by this car that had already hit a law enforcement officer.”
Mrozek said the government is considering an appeal. While finding the DEA agent at fault, the judge ruled he was not “negligent” in his actions.
An attorney for the Champommier family said the car was moving less than 5 miles per hour — not 15 miles per hour as the government argued — and that the sheriff's deputy stepped in front of the car.
“It was a combination of bad tactics and errors in judgment that led to a mistake,” said attorney Gary Dordick. He argued that Champommier had no way of knowing whether the men who were detaining his friend were police or "thugs," and that he drove away because he was scared. The family had asked for $10 million in damages.
Champommier expressed frustration over the government’s refusal to admit what she sees as a tragic error: “When something like this happens, I think they protect their own.”
She called her son a “kind hearted person” who loved to play the viola and saxophone.
“He was in the band. He loved music. He was going to start community college in the Fall,” she said. “He was my only child and I put everything into him.”