Homeless Couple Shot by Police Lose Award at High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court was nearly unanimous Tuesday in tossing a $4 million verdict against Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies who shot a California homeless couple during a warrantless search, while the woman was pregnant.

At the time of the shooting in October 2010, police were searching for a parolee at large. 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.

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.

It is undisputed that the officers knew that Hughes was allowing a man and his pregnant girlfriend to live in her shed — a wooden shack in the back yard that measured 7-by-7-by-7.

Though they knew the man was not the parolee they were looking for, they wanted to search it just the same.

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.

Though the Ninth Circuit upheld a $4 million award to the couple last year, the U.S. Supreme Court was nearly unanimous Tuesday in vacating that decision, taking issue with a rule adopted by the lower court that permits an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment “where an officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation, if the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation.”

“The basic problem with the provocation rule is that it fails to stop there,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. Instead, the rule provides a novel and unsupported path to liability in cases in which the use of force was reasonable. Specifically, it instructs courts to look back in time to see if there was a different Fourth Amendment violation that is somehow tied to the eventual use of force. That distinct violation, rather than the forceful seizure itself, may then serve as the foundation of the plaintiff ’s excessive force claim.”

Alito called it unnecessary “to dress up every Fourth Amendment claim as an excessive force claim.”

“For example, if the plaintiffs in this case cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry,” he wrote. “The harm proximately caused by these two torts may overlap, but the two claims should not be confused.”

The justices directed the Ninth Circuit on remand to revisit whether proximate cause permits the Mendezes to recover damages for their shooting injuries based on the deputies’ failure to secure a warrant at the outset.

“The arguments made on this point by the parties and by the United States as amicus provide a useful starting point for this inquiry,” Alito added.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the court’s consideration or decision of the case.

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