Judge Sides With Couple Carelessly Shot by Cops
LOS ANGELES (CN) - Police owe $4 million, but just two bucks in nominal damages, to a couple they shot, costing the man his leg, while looking for a parolee-at-large, a federal judge ruled.
Angel and Jennifer Mendez are now married, but at the time of the shooting in October 2010 they were living together in a shack behind the house of a friend in Lancaster, Calif. Jennifer was pregnant.
Two deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department descended on the property while searching for parolee-at-large Ronnie O'Dell, a wanted felony suspect believed to be armed and dangerous.
As the deputies approached the shack, the Mendezes were napping on a futon inside the shack. Angel heard deputies opening the door and wanted to put his feet on the floor, but could not because his BB gun rifle was in the way.
The deputies pulled back a blue blanket hanging from the top of the doorframe and allegedly saw the silhouette of an adult male holding what looked like a rifle.
Deputy Christopher Conley yelled gun and started firing with his partner, Deputy Jennifer Pederson, whose last name is now Ballis. Conley ultimately fired 10 shots, and Pederson fired five.
"Mr. Mendez was shot in the right forearm, right shin, right hip/thigh, right lower back, and left foot," according to the ruling.
Doctors had to amputate his right leg below the knee.
"Mrs. Mendez was shot in the right upper back/clavicle, and a bullet grazed her left hand," according to the ruling.
O'Dell, who was possibly spotted riding a bicycle outside the property, was not caught that day.
The Mendezes sued and U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald conducted a bench trial earlier this year. He issued a verdict in favor of the couple Tuesday, finding that the deputies' warrantless search of the shack was not reasonable.
Police failed to show any evidence that O'Dell was a resident of the property they raided, and thus they cannot justify the search as necessary to prevent O'Dell from escaping or harming the officers at the scene, according to the ruling.
"The shack had a single doorway," Fitzgerald wrote. "If O'Dell had been within the shack, he was trapped."
There was time for the deputies to get a warrant. A trapped O'Dell also posed little harm to officer safety, the court found.
"Tellingly, Deputy Conley testified that, prior to opening the door to the shack, he did not feel threatened," Fitzgerald wrote.
It was not reasonable for officers to believe that the shack was not a dwelling and that O'Dell would be the only person inside of it, according to the ruling.
The deputies violated the rights of the Mendezes to be free of unreasonable search and excessive force, the court found.
"In this case, it was foreseeable that opening the door to the shack without a warrant (or warrant exception) and without knocking-and-announcing could lead to a violent confrontation," Fitzgerald wrote (parentheses in original). "Mr. Mendez's 'normal efforts' in picking up the BB gun rifle to sit up on the futon do not supersede Deputies Conley and Pederson's responsibility. Therefore, the conduct of Deputies Conley and Pederson was the proximate cause of Mr. and Mrs. Mendez's injuries."
The court awarded the Mendezes $1 in nominal damages for their unreasonable search claims based on warrantless entry and $1 for their unreasonable search claims based on failure to knock-and-announce.
Both deputies are liable for excessive force, Fitzgerald found, ordering them to pay Angel Mendez $2 million for lost earnings and past and future medical bills, plus $1.8 million in noneconomic damages. His wife is owed $222,000 in medical costs and noneconomic damages.
"In awarding non-economic damages, the Court awarded an amount for Mr. Mendez that is sufficient - if invested prudently and not squandered - to raise his family in dignified circumstances," Fitzgerald wrote. "The gist of Mr. Mendez's testimony was that the loss of his leg caused a loss of dignity and self-sufficiency. In awarding non-economic damages to Mrs. Mendez, the Court is mindful that she was pregnant at the time she was shot."