Ninth Circuit Sides With Homeless Shed-Dwellers Against Sheriff’s Deputies

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Deputies with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered a shed without a warrant and shot two homeless people sleeping inside, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Friday.

Angel Mendez and Jennifer Lynn Garcia (now Jennifer Mendez) were sleeping in a one-room shed behind a house when sheriff’s deputies – who were searching for someone else – entered without a warrant or announcing their presence.

Waking up suddenly, Mendez moved a BB gun from the futon he was sleeping on. When two officers – Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pedersen – saw the gun, they fired on the pair and injured them.

In a 29-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judges Ronald M. Gould and Marsha S. Berzon, and U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh III, said Conley and Pedersen are liable for violations of the pair’s Fourth Amendment rights, affirming the district court’s ruling.

Mendez’s “innocent acts” did not justify deadly force, the panel found.

“Even if it were to treat the failure to get a warrant rather than the entry as the basis for the breach of duty, as the defendants suggested, the panel would still reach the same conclusion regarding proximate cause,” Gould wrote for the panel.

Jennifer, who was pregnant at the time, was shot in the upper back and left hand. Angel Mendez’s right leg was amputated below the knee due to complications from the shooting injuries.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Leonard Feldman of Peterson Wampold Rosato Feldman Luna said in a statement he was “pleased” with the panel’s decision.

“[T]he Ninth Circuit held the defendant police officers liable for their reckless and unlawful conduct,” Feldman said. “Both Angel and Jennifer Mendez were seriously injured by the officers and they are now a step closer to finally resolving their claims.”

Melinda Cantrall and Thomas Hurrell of Hurrell Cantrall, attorneys for the defendants, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

In a May 14 hearing, the panel said the pair should have protections against warrantless searches and questioned whether probable cause was properly established in the lead-up to the confrontation.

The shooting was a “foreseeable consequence” of the officers’ unlawful entry, the panel said, adding that the officers had a constitutional duty to knock and announce their presence before entering, but that “this duty had not been clearly established.”

Still, the panel called the officers’ failure to knock and announce themselves “an especially dangerous omission,” stripping their entitlement to qualified immunity.

“[Officers] decided to proceed without taking even simple and available precautions, including announcing their presence, which could have protected the Mendezes from the severe harm that befell them,” Gould wrote.

Upholding the district court’s ruling on the Mendezes’ excessive force claim, the panel found the officers’ unlawful entry that day to be “reckless, at a minimum.”

The Ninth Circuit had previously found the officers liable, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the decision.

On remand, the panel will amend the judgment and award damages.

The Mendezes are also entitled to recover damages under California negligence law, the opinion stated, though it was not clear how much.

Vacating U.S District Judge Michael Fitzgerald’s award of nominal damages, the panel said the district court should have awarded full damages.

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