Defense Claims It Was Self-Defense and Mistaken Identity
San Francisco – Did Tyler Gress steal merchandise from a Ross Dress For Less in San Francisco on February 28, 2019, escalate a confrontation with a San Francisco Police Officer and then punch him out, or did he act reasonably out of fear and simply protect himself?
That is what a San Francisco jury will have to decide in the next few days, as the trial opened on Thursday in front of Judge Braden Woods. Mr. Gress is facing charges for battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.
In a brief hearing prior to open arguments, Judge Woods sustained the DA’s objection to playing a portion of the video where Mr. Gress told the officer, “I didn’t start no shit – I just did what I thought was right.”
Judge Woods ruled that he did not see an emotional reaction needed to bring it in under an excited utterances provision under the Evidence Code and suggested that Deputy Public Defender Jaime Longoria find another way to lay foundation for the video.
In their opening arguments, the prosecutor played a number of videos for the jury showing Mr. Gress fleeing the store, getting in a shoving match with the officer and then throwing a single punch that reportedly knocked the officer unconscious.
According to Assistant District Attorney Thomas Ostley, Mr. Gress was in Ross Dress For Less when he set off the alarm. Sgt. Alex Kwan, who was in uniform but working an extra off-duty shift, was at the entrance and took off after Mr. Gress.
A chase ensued. He ordered Mr. Gress to turn around and come back to the store.
“He refused a lawful command,” Mr. Ostley explained. They then get into a shoving match where Mr. Gress punched the officer in the face, rendering him unconscious. He then took off running, which the prosecutor argued was a sign of guilt.
But Mr. Longoria presented another narrative in his opening statement.
“Tyler Gress didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “He was in fear.
“On February 28, 2019, his freedom was taken from him left on the corner of 4th and Market, and he deserves it back,” he said.
“Tyler was scared. Approached by an unknown man, that he did not recognize. His instincts told him fight or flight,” the defense attorney said. “He chose flight. He tried to walk away.”
The defense argued that he didn’t steal anything and therefore he felt had the right to walk away.
“But that man did not let him be,” he said. “This officer cut him off and grabbed his arm.
“All he can think about is how he can get out of this situation,” he said. “So he does push an officer away.”
Mr. Longoria put forth the argument that Mr. Gress was the one that used proper de-escalation tactics. He created time and space. He pushed the officer away.
“But this man is relentless, he keeps coming at Tyler,” he said.
Contrary to the prosecution claims, it was not Mr. Gress who escalated things. Instead it was the officer who kept coming at Mr. Gress. Pushed him three times, grabbed him, pushed his arms.
Mr. Longoria argued that the video shows Mr. Gress “putting his hands in the air” and “showing his palms.”
This, he said, was Mr. Gress “communicating that he’s not a danger.
“Who was the escalator?” he asked. “The evidence will show that Sgt. Kwan was escalating the situation. Mr. Gress was doing everything he could to use the least amount of force to get out of the situation.
“Tyler thought he was about getting taken down to the ground,” he said, and he was fearful of what would happen if he got taken to the ground, vulnerable.
Mr. Gress, his attorney argued, is not from San Francisco. Instead, he was from a small town in Calaveras County. There they have sheriffs rather than police officers. There is no foot patrol. There are no cops in Ross.
“He was a country boy in the big city,” he said. Mr. Gress did not have the time and focus to inspect the officer’s uniform and see what it was. Moreover, he was not familiar with that uniform.
“It turns out he was a police officer,” he said. “Tyler didn’t know that.”
The guy comes up behind him and “how is he supposed to know he’s a police officer unless he identifies himself?” the attorney asked. “You will learn that there is nothing to corroborate this officer’s testimony that he identified himself as a police officer.”
Mr. Longoria pointed out that there was no body worn camera here. “It’s somehow missing.” There are no witnesses. “He didn’t even put it in his report that he identified himself,” the attorney said.
“The evidence will show that he is not in his full uniform,” Mr. Longoria continued. “Against department policy Sgt. Kwan wasn’t wearing his service hat. That one thing that would separate him as a police officer.
“Tyler Gress did not know this man was a police officer. He thought he was under attack. He thought his life was in danger,” he said.
His attorney acknowledged that Mr. Gress punched the man, but pointed out that, while he fled the scene, as he calmed down from the incident, he came back and surrendered.
He told the jury, “He’s innocent.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting