Tuesday, August 20, 2013
S.C.: Police Tactical Errors May Result in Wrongful Death Liability
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A court determining whether police were unreasonable in using deadly force may consider the tactical decisions leading up to the use of such force, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices’ response to a certified question from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals points toward possible reversal of a lower court’s grant of summary judgment. A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California absolved sheriff’s deputies of liability for the 2006 death of a suicidal San Diego County man.
Deputies said they shot Shane Hayes when he came toward them with a large knife. Two deputies fired two shots each from two to eight feet away.
They had gone to Hayes’ Santee home in response to reports of screaming, and were told by Hayes’ girlfriend that he had tried to kill himself earlier in the evening by inhaling exhaust fumes from his car.
He had attempted to stab himself to death months earlier, a fact the deputies said they were unaware of prior to the fatal incident.
Guardian Files Suit
The guardian ad litem for Hayes’ daughter, 12 years old at the time of the shooting, filed suit, alleging causes of action for civil rights violations and negligence as regards to the handling of the confrontation. The complaint also included a claim against the county for negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of the deputies.
The plaintiff alleged that the deputies made numerous decisions prior to the shooting that were wrong and that led to Hayes’ death, including entering the house without contacting a mental health expert and speaking to Hayes when he was in an obviously agitated state.
The district judge concluded that the deputies’ handling of the incident was indisputably reasonable under state and federal law, that their conduct prior to the shooting did not rise to the level of an independent constitutional violation, and that they did not owe Hayes a duty of care under California law with regard to their conduct and decisions leading up to the shooting.
A Ninth Circuit panel, in a 2011 decision, affirmed in part and reversed in part, but later withdrew that decision and certified the following question to the California Supreme Court:
“Whether under California negligence law, sheriff’s deputies owe a duty of care to a suicidal person when preparing, approaching, and performing a welfare check on him.”
The Supreme Court agreed to consider the issue, which it restated as “[w]hether under California negligence law, liability can arise from tactical conduct and decisions employed by law enforcement preceding the use of deadly force.”
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for a unanimous court, supplied the answer:
“Our response, which is based on long-established state law, is that such liability can arise if the tactical conduct and decisions leading up to the use of deadly force show, as part of the totality of circumstances, that the use of deadly force was unreasonable. Our task here is limited to deciding a purely legal question; the federal courts will resolve, as a factual matter, whether a finding of liability is appropriate on the facts presented.”
The justice explained that because there was a single injury, the shooting death, the officers’ pre-shooting conduct “should not be considered in isolation,” but as part of the totality of circumstances.
In a footnote, Kennard acknowledged that Munoz v. City of Union City (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 1077, could be read as inconsistent with the court’s holding, and said that case was disapproved to that extent. In Munoz, the court said that the defendant police officers could not be held liable for their conduct leading up to a fatal shooting, although the panel upheld the jury’s determination that the shooting itself constituted unnecessary use of deadly force.
Kennard cautioned that because the case was before the court on a certified question, the court was only clarifying the law and was expressing no view as to whether the officers are liable on the facts.
They case is Hayes v. County of San Diego, 13 S.O.S. 4291.
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