The U.S. Supreme Court this week sided with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and threw out a lower court ruling affirming a $4 million award to a formerly homeless Lancaster husband and wife for a warrantless raid that caused the man to lose a leg.
In its ruling, the nation’s highest court found that law enforcement cannot be sued for injuries they caused during a search unless the search itself is “unreasonable,” under the Fourth Amendment.
Angel Mendez and his wife sued Los Angeles County six years ago, alleging excessive force and federal civil rights violations.
The couple were living in a makeshift dwelling in 2010, when they were shot by sheriff’s deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson, members of the Community-Oriented Policing Unit, during a warrantless raid while searching for a parolee-at-large, according to court papers.
Mendez, who was holding a rifle-style BB gun, was critically injured, resulting in the amputation of one of his legs. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was struck once by a bullet, which shattered her collar bone.
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald handed down his ruling for the plaintiffs in Los Angeles federal court in August 2013, awarding $3.8 million to Mendez and $222,000 to his wife, for damages resulting from Fourth Amendment violations by the deputies.
According to Fitzgerald’s ruling, Conley and Pederson “violated Mr. and Mrs. Mendez’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable search based on the manner of entry.”
The deputies appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year, unsuccessfully arguing that the dilapidated wooden shack did not appear to be a residence and consequently a warrant was not required.
Affirming Fitzgerald’s finding, the appellate panel determined that the deputies should have known that the shack was occupied, since it was “surrounded by an air conditioning unit, electric cord, water hose, and clothes locker.”
The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which effectively ended the case.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not immediately be reached for comment.
The unanimous ruling rejected the “provocation” rule that holds that law enforcement may be sued for violating a victim’s constitutional rights against unreasonable searches if they provoked a confrontation that resulted in violence.
In the 8-0 decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote that the “basic problem” with the rule is that it “provides a novel and unsupported path to liability in cases in which the use of force was reasonable.”
The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs applauded the decision.
“The Supreme Court decision is a strong reaffirmation that any use of force will be judged solely based on the facts known to the deputies at the time force was employed.”