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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
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L.A. Deputies Who Shot Homeless Couple Must Pay

(CN) - The Ninth Circuit upheld a $4 million award Wednesday to a California homeless couple shot by police 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.

Having received a tip that the parolee was spotted outside the residence of Paula Hughes in Lancaster, Calif., riding a bicycle, 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 let a man and his pregnant girlfriend 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.

As the deputies pulled back a blue blanket hanging from the top of the doorframe, they allegedly saw the silhouette of an adult male holding what looked like a rifle.

Two of the deputies began firing, hitting Angel several times, ultimately causing his right leg below the knee to have to be amputated. The pregnant Jennifer was also hit.

U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald awarded Angel Martinez $2 million for lost earnings and past and future bills, plus $1.8 million in noneconomic damages. The judge awarded Jennifer $222,000 in medical costs and noneconomic damages.

The Ninth Circuit upheld the unreasonable-search and excessive-force win for the Mendezes on Wednesday, agreeing with Fitzgerald that the deputies were not entitled to qualified immunity for a warrantless entry and were liable for the damages that arose from the shooting.

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.

The panel did support qualified immunity for the deputies, however, as to claims that they violated the knock-and-announce rule when they did not announce their presence at the shack before entering it.

The officers did "announce their presence at Hughes' front door, and we disagree with the district court that existing case law squarely governs the question whether the deputies needed to announce their presence again before entering the shack in the cartilage," Gould said.

This finding on the knock-and-announce violation reverses the trial court's award of $1 nominal damages.

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."

Attorneys for the parties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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