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Noor attorneys, Minneapolis press judge to delay Ruszczyk family suit

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Attorneys representing the family of Justine Ruszczyk.
Attorneys representing the family of Justine Ruszczyk spoke about a civil suit being brought against the city of Minneapolis at a press conference in Minneapolis on Monday, July 23, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 3:14 p.m. | Posted 12:41 p.m.

Attorneys for the city of Minneapolis and former police officer Mohamed Noor argued in federal court Friday that the lawsuit filed on behalf of Justine Ruszczyk's family should not proceed until the criminal case against Noor is resolved.

  Noor, 32, shot and killed Ruszczyk, 40, in the alley behind her home in south Minneapolis on July 15, 2017. Ruszczyk, known professionally as Justine Damond, had called 911 to report what she thought was an assault on a woman. 

Noor has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.     

In July, the family, seeking $50 million in damages, filed a civil rights suit naming Noor, his partner Matthew Harrity, former Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau, current chief Medaria Arradondo, and the city.

At the Friday hearing in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, Noor's attorney Matthew Forsgren said there is too much overlap between the two cases and argued that a stay is necessary to protect the integrity of the criminal case against Noor. 

Noor has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, meaning he won't be able to provide the Ruszczyk family answers until the criminal trial is over, Forsgren said.

"No person" should be forced to defend themselves in civil and criminal matters at the same time, he said.

But Ruszczyk's family attorney Bob Bennett said a blanket Fifth Amendment invocation isn't appropriate in this case and that there is plenty to do while the criminal case proceeds. 

"Why should we indulge his interest if he is guilty," he said.

Bennett suggested that Noor choose selective assertion of the Fifth Amendment, where he could share pieces of information, and choose not to share others. He also said the court could protect the integrity of the criminal trial by sealing all material in this case.

Bennett alleges that there was a cover-up among police officers when they decided not to activate their body cameras during and after the shooting. He said many other documents gained through discovery would reveal information about the Minneapolis Police Department's policies, practices and training of officers, that is of broader public interest. 

Because of the expansive approach that the Hennepin County Attorney's Office has taken in the case, some of that information has already been released in the criminal case. 

Recent filings have included evidence regarding Noor's training, work history and psychological evaluation.   

Minneapolis City Attorney Kristin Sarff argued that the city cannot get access to certain information, that would be protected under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, as part of the ongoing criminal case. She gave the examples of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension file or the Hennepin County Attorney's investigation material, that wouldn't be available to her.

"There is virtually nothing there not implicated by the criminal trial," she added.

But Bennett said there is no way the city is unable to gain access to documents detailing its own data regarding police department policies, training and officers' use of body cameras. It's unclear how long the criminal proceedings will take and he wants to begin reviewing the thousands of pages of documents available, including an 8,000 page BCA file.

"There is lots of things you could do short of just nothing," Bennett said.

The hearing, however, kept addressing the fact that Noor has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Hearing from Noor — what he saw, heard and believed at the time he shot Ruszczyk — is vital when trying to find out what really happened and why it happened.

On the other hand, Bennett said Noor's testimony isn't the answer to all questions.

"Once you turn off your body camera, you lose the credibility with me," he said after the hearing. 

Bennett has been involved in numerous high-profile police misconduct cases. He's filed lawsuits against the city of Minneapolis and others. Last year, he reached a $3 million settlement for Philando Castile's family after former St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted.

The largest known payout in the state of Minnesota is $4.5 million, made in 2007 by the city of Minneapolis to Duy Ngo. Ngo was a Minneapolis police officer shot by another officer while on duty. Ngo was seriously injured and had to leave the department. He wound up taking his own life in 2010.   

Negotiations with the city stopped when they canceled them, according to Bennett. He said city officials told him they needed to deal with cases related to the Jamar Clark and Terrance Franklin shootings before getting to this one.

"We're going to know a lot before we settle with them again," Bennett said, referring to documents that could potentially become public through subpoenas. 

U.S. District Judge Tony Leung didn't decide the issue at Friday's hearing, but will release a judgement later.

Noor's next hearing in the criminal case is scheduled for Sept. 27. He has yet to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty on those charges.

Correction (Sept. 15, 2018): An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Terrance Franklin's name.