Thursday, March 3, 2016
Panel Upholds $4 Million Award in Shooting by Deputies
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Sheriff’s deputies violated the constitutional rights of a homeless couple by making a warrantless entry into the shack in which they were living, and are liable for damages they suffered as a result of being shot, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The judges upheld a $4 million damage award to Angel Mendez and Jennifer Lynn Garcia, rejecting Los Angeles County lawyers’ contention that deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson were entitled to qualified immunity.
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled for the plaintiffs following a bench trial. The judge heard testimony that the defendants were among 12 officers who responded to call from an officer who believed he had spotted a wanted parolee entering a grocery store.
After searching the store unsuccessfully, the deputies received a tip that the parolee, or someone meeting his description, was riding a bicycle in front of a house in Lancaster. Conley and Pederson went to the house, along with other officers.
The other officers banged on the security screen outside the house’s front door while Conley and Pederson watched the back. When the owner refused entry after being told the officers lacked a warrant, they retrieved a pick and a ram in order to bust open the front door, thereby persuading the owner to open it, whereupon she was subdued and detained.
A search of the house did not produce the parolee. After the sergeant in charge gave Pederson the go-ahead to “clear the backyard,” they proceeded to the wooden shack.
Conley opened the door of the shack. He and Pederson later testified that after he pulled back a blanket used as a curtain, they saw the silhouette of an adult male holding what appeared to be a rifle pointed at them. The officers fired a total of 15 shots.
Mendez in fact was holding a BB gun, which the district judge found to have been pointed at the deputies. Mendez and his wife—who were living in the shack with the owner’s permission—were both seriously injured, with Mendez requiring amputation of his right leg below the knee.
Fitzgerald found that there was no constitutional justification for the warrantless entry and that the deputies violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to knock and announce themselves.
The deputies made a reasonable mistake in believing they were in danger upon seeing the BB gun, the judge ruled, thereby precluding a finding of liability for use of excessive force. But under Ninth Circuit precedent, he said, the shooting was still unconstitutional because the officers had no reason to enter the shack.
Judge Ronald Gould, writing for the Ninth Circuit, agreed that the officers’ entry constituted an unreasonable search. The Fourth Amendment, he said, is not limited to searches of dwellings, and while the shack may have been “dilapidated,” as the county asserted, it was “very clearly in the curtilage of the house,” which the deputies knew was an occupied dwelling.
The judge rejected the argument that the deputies reasonably believed that exigent circumstances existed, and were thus entitled to qualified immunity. It was clearly established at the time of the 2010 incident that a mere suspicion of the presence of a fugitive isn’t enough to justify a warrantless entry, Gould said.
A different result might occur if the deputies had been in continuous pursuit of the fugitive, he explained, but they had no information regarding his whereabouts beyond the tip about his being seen in front of the house, and “were far from sure that [he] was still (or had ever been) inside [the] house—let alone in the shack….”
The district judge did err, Gould went on to say, in finding that the deputies were not entitled to qualified immunity from the plaintiffs’ knock-and-announce claim. There was a violation, the appellate judge said, but it was unclear at the time of the incident whether the deputies, having complied with the rule before entering the house, were required to do so again before going into the shack.
To establish the law going forward, however, the panel held that “officers must knock and re-announce their presence when they know or should reasonably know that an area within the cartilage of a home is a separate residence from the main house.”
The court struck a nominal award of $1 on that claim, but otherwise affirmed the judgment.
The appeal was argued by Melinda Cantrall of Hurrell Cantrall LLP for the deputies and by David Drexler of Sherman Oaks for the plaintiffs.
The case is Mendez v. County of Los Angeles, 13-56686.
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