SCOTUS tosses $4 million award for homeless couple shot by police

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed that sheriff’s deputies used reasonable force when in a 2010 shooting that left two wounded.

Falling back on a longstanding objective reasonableness argument in use-of-force case law, the high court overturned a previous ruling in the case of Angel Mendez and Jennifer Garcia, between them shot 15 times by Los Angeles County deputies conducting a search.

Two deputies, Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson, were part of a larger force of officers looking for a dangerous parolee when they came across the couple living inside a primitive shack behind the property being searched. Without a warrant or announcing their presence, the officers opened the door to the shack which prompted a napping Mendez, who had a BB gun on his futon that he used to kill rats with, to stand. Conely yelled, “Gun!” and the deputies opened fire, hitting both individuals. Mendez, shot 14 times, had to have a leg amputated while Garcia, pregnant at the time of the shooting and hit once in the back, feared to lose her child.

Citing excessive force and civil rights allegations, the couple sued the county in 2011 in federal court, with U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald in August 2013 granting over $4 million in damages to Mendez and Garcia. The ruling, upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit on appeal last year, was overturned by the Supreme Court this week.

The deputies, previously cleared after the shooting by the LASD’s Office of Independent Review, used reasonable force as noted by the Supreme Court in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito for the eight-jurist panel that did not include newly added Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was not part of the court when the case was argued.

The court fell back on the 1989 Graham v. Connor ruling which held that objective reasonableness must be used when determining if excessive force was used by police, with courts basing their decisions on the information the officers had at the time.

What Alito took exception to was the 9th Circuit’s use of the so-called provocation rule to find the deputies liable for $4 million in damages, pinning it on a “murky” connection to a Fourth Amendment violation of search and seizure rights to label it excessive force. The logic of the 9th Circuit’s decision in citing the provocation rule was that the deputies lost their immunity from damages after they entered the shack without a warrant.

“The rule’s fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist,” said Alito going on to describe the “fundamental problem of the provocation rule: namely, that it is an unwarranted and illogical expansion of Graham.”

The case is not over as Alito held that the lower court on remand should revisit the liability for damages under the warrantless entry claim, “based on the deputies’ failure to secure a warrant at the outset.”