A former Salinas police officer will be required to stand trial on a felony charge of discharging his firearm with gross negligence stemming from a 2009 incident during which he and another officer fired 14 shots into a vehicle occupied by two unarmed people.
A jury trial for Christopher Swanson, 37, is scheduled to begin March 24 in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Russell D. Scott.
Swanson was on the Salinas police force for about a year late Feb. 3, 2009, when he pulled over a Ford Expedition SUV about 11:30 p.m. in a violence-torn neighborhood in East Salinas.
The routine traffic stop turned volatile when thought he heard a pop, saw what he believed was the flash of a gun muzzle, and felt what he assumed was a bullet striking his Kevlar vest.
As he reeled away from the car, he heard several gunshots fired by officer Steven Mattocks. Swanson then opened fire.
The officers put 14 rounds into the SUV, shattering the rear window and a side window, but did not injure the occupants.
Swanson was terminated from the force, and the city of Salinas paid a settlement of $130,000 each to driver Adriana Velazquez and passenger Julio Hernandez.
Judge Scott determined Thursday that sufficient evidence was presented during pre-trial hearings to warrant a trial, concluding that Swanson "grossly overreacted" after misinterpreting a series of events.
Swanson's defense attorney, Mike Lawrence, suggested during hearings the popping sound the officer heard might have been created when Hernandez crushed a beer can while attempting to conceal it. He implied the flash could have been a reflection from Swanson's flashlight off the can, or a change purse, or CDs in the vehicle.
But Scott noted Mattocks heard and saw nothing as he stood at the passenger-side window, and opened fire because he thought Swanson yelled, "I've been shot!" Swanson testified Thursday that he didn't recall yelling "I've been shot!"
Lawrence expressed confidence Friday the evidence that will be presented during the trial will clear Swanson, a retired Marine who served two combat tours in Iraq before becoming a police officer.
"There is a substantial difference between a preliminary hearing and a jury trial," he said. "At the jury trial, all the witnesses will be subpoenaed and we're confident that we can show that the beer can played a significant part in officer Swanson's perceptions that night in a dangerous area of the city."
Swanson faces as much as three years in prison, or as little as probation, if convicted.