Court transfers tiger evidence dispute to Santa Clara County

A dispute over possible evidence in the cell phones and car of two brothers who were mauled by a San Francisco zoo tiger was transferred from San Francisco to Santa Clara Superior Court on Friday.

San Francisco Superior Court Commissioner Bruce Chan said state law has “clearly expressed” that the city’s bid to inspect the items should be heard in Santa Clara County, the residence of Amritpal and Kulbir Dhaliwal.

The two brothers were injured and their friend, 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. of San Jose, was killed when a Siberian tiger leaped out of its grotto on Christmas Day.

San Francisco’s request for a court order allowing investigators to examine the phones and car now goes to Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Socrates Manoukian, who has scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday. Manoukian issued a temporary order Thursday requiring San Francisco police to maintain custody of the phones and car until further notice.

Amritpal Dhaliwal, 19, and his brother Kulbir, 23, both of San Jose, had requested moving the evidence dispute to the South Bay court.

Attorneys for San Francisco and the zoo have said the car and photos in the cell phones may contain crucial evidence that would be needed if the tiger victims file expected lawsuits against the two entities.

In papers filed with Chan, lawyers for the city alleged without giving details that the car contains a half-empty bottle of alcohol and “apparent evidence of drug use.” They also wrote that the car may have contents that could be relevant to foreign objects found in the tiger grotto that “may have been used to pelt or taunt the tiger.”

Outside of court, Shepard Kopp, a lawyer for the Dhaliwals, called the suggestion of possible drug use “more character assassination.”

Kopp said, “Nothing is going to come out of this that is incriminating,” but said, “Our clients want their property back.”

The brothers’ lead lawyer, Mark Geragos, wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to City Attorney Dennis Herrera that the young men did not “throw or propel anything at the tiger.”

Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly declined to give any details on the city’s allegations outside of court. In court, he told Chan that “something happened to provoke that attack” and said, “The city wants nothing more than the truth and wants that truth preserved.”

In another aspect of the dispute, the brothers’ lawyers have also argued that any evidence in the items would be irrelevant because escape of a dangerous animal is covered by the concept of strict liability. The concept means the city and the zoo are legally liable for any harm caused regardless of any other factors.

But lawyers for the city contended in papers filed with Chan on Thursday that the concept of strict liability doesn’t apply to public entities.

Bay City News

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