High Court Takes Up Case of Shot Homeless Couple

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court has agreed to resolve whether police were at fault for shooting a California homeless couple during a warrantless search, while the woman was pregnant.

Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies were searching for a parolee at large at the time of the shooting in October 2010.

Investigating a tip that the parolee was spotted riding a bicycle outside the residence of Paula Hughes in Lancaster, Calif., the deputies entered the property without a warrant and began going through Hughes’ sheds.

Hughes initially refused to let the deputies search the main house, but relented when they prepared to break down her door. They didn’t find the parolee, but they locked up Hughes for good measure.

The deputies still wanted to search a wooden shack in the yard that measured 7-by-7-by-7.

As the officers approached the shack, they knew that Hughes was allowing a man and his pregnant girlfriend to live in her backyard; and they knew the man was not the parolee they were looking for.

Angel and Jennifer Mendez, who are now married, had been napping in the shack as deputies approached.

Hearing the door open, Angel wanted to put his feet on the floor, but needed to move his BB gun rifle first to do so.

The deputies were pulling back a blue blanket hanging from the top of the doorframe when they claimed to have seen the silhouette of an adult male holding what looked like a rifle.

Two of the deputies began firing, hitting Angel several times and the pregnant Jennifer. Angel had to have his right leg amputated below the knee because of the shooting.

The county petitioned for Supreme Court intervention after the Ninth Circuit upheld a $4 million award to the couple in March.

Writing for a three-person panel, Judge Ronald Gould put little stock in the deputies’ argument that it would not have been reasonable for them to assume that the shack was a separate dwelling from the house they were searching.

The shack was 30 feet from the house and was not within the fence area that enclosed the grassy backyard area, but rather was located on a dirt surface at the rear of the property that could not be observed.

“The deputies’ citations to cases involving ‘abandoned property’ are inapposite because even if the shack was ‘dilapidated,’ the officers knew that Hughes lived in the house, and the shack was very clearly in the cartilage of the house,” Gould wrote (emphasis in original).

Gould also saw no exigent circumstances that justified the search.

Although the deputies said the parolee they sought was armed and dangerous, Gould noted the lack of credible evidence that the parolee, Ronnie O’Dell, was in the shack.

“While the deputies received additional information about O’Dell’s possible location from a confidential informant, the location identified was outside Hughes’ home, not in the house or the shack behind it,” the ruling states. “And the officers still did not enter the shack until at least 15 minutes after learning that O’Dell was outside Hughes’ home.”

This likewise undermines the deputies’ argument that they were in “hot pursuit” of O’Dell.

In addition to violating Fourth Amendment law by entering the shack without a warrant, the officers are also liable for the Mendezes’ excessive-force claims, because the shooting was “a forseeable consequence of their unconstitutional entry even though the shooting itself was not unconstitutionally excessive force under the Fourth Amendment,” Gould said.

Late on Dec. 2, the Supreme Court granted Los Angeles a writ of certiorari.

Though the court did not issue any statement in taking up the case, as is its custom, it did lay out the questions it will resolve.

First the county asks: “Whether the Ninth Circuit’s ‘provocation’ rule should be barred as it conflicts with Graham v. Connor regarding the manner in which a claim of excessive force against a police officer should be determined in an action brought under 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 for a violation of a plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, and has been rejected by other Courts of Appeals?”

The court will also decide: “Whether, in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an incident giving rise to a reasonable use of force is an intervening, superseding event which breaks the chain of causation from a prior, unlawful entry in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”