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Ninth Circuit Affirms $4 Million Verdict for Couple Shot by L.A. County Deputies During Warrantless Entry into Their Home

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a verdict, after remand by the U.S. Supreme Court, awarding $4 million to a couple who were shot by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies during a warrantless and unlawful entry of their home.

While Angel and Jennifer Mendez slept in their home, two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies, Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson, broke in the door with guns drawn looking for a missing parolee. They didn’t have a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances to justify their entry, nor did they even announce their presence prior to entering. When Angel, who is deaf, moved a BB gun to place it on the floor, Conley opened fire, shooting Angel 10 times and Jennifer twice. Both recovered, but Angel lost most of his leg. Police were acting on bad information that the parolee was last seen in the area of the Mendezes’ home riding a bike. He was not in the home, and the Mendezes did not know the parolee.

The Mendezes filed claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, alleging the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by the unlawful search and by using excessive force. The district court ruled in favor of the Mendezes, awarding approximately $4 million. The officers appealed the court’s verdict.

In pertinent part, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the $4 million verdict, holding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because the law was clearly established at the time of the shooting that the officers’ warrantless entry was unlawful. The Court also held that the officers violated the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights because (1) they had no warrant, (2) they lacked consent to enter, and (3) there were no exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless entry. The officers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision, but it instructed that the Mendezes could still “generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation,” including the “injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.” County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 137 S. Ct. 1539 (2017).

The question on remand to the Ninth Circuit was whether the officers’ unlawful entry was the proximate cause of the Mendezes’ injuries.

Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals have the right to be free from unreasonable searches. A search conducted without a warrant, consent, or existent circumstances is unreasonable and thus a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Court explained. This is not only a protection of a person’s privacy, but also from physical government intrusions and harm from that intrusion. The Fourth Amendment, however, is not merely about requiring a warrant, the Court said. The role of the warrant requirement is simply a method to ensure a search is reasonable. It is not the lack of a warrant that violates the Fourth Amendment in this case; rather, it’s the entry itself into the Mendezes’ home. The Court explained that the officers had a duty not to enter since there wasn’t a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances. Thus, their entry was unreasonable and unlawful.

Under § 1983, damages are measured in terms of “compensation for the injury caused to the plaintiff by defendant’s breach of duty,” the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299 (1986). To calculate damages, a court must (1) determine what act or omission constituted the breach of duty, and (2) whether that act or omission was cause in fact as well as the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

The Ninth Circuit summarily concluded that “there is no question that the unlawful entry was the cause in fact of the injuries.” Had the officers not entered, the Mendezes would not have been shot, the Court stated.

According to the Court, the more difficult question is that of proximate cause, i.e., whether the officers’ unlawful entry (breach of duty) proximately caused the injuries. The Court held that the unlawful entry was the proximate cause of the Mendezes’ injuries.

The Court explained that “proximate cause asks whether the unlawful conduct is closely enough tied to the injury that it makes sense to hold the defendant legally responsible for the injury.” The Court further explained that in a § 1983 action foreseeability is “the touchstone of proximate cause….”

In the present case, it was foreseeable that the entry of armed strangers into an occupied residence could lead to injury. The Court concluded that in such a scenario it was foreseeable that either the intruders or residents (or both) could misperceive the threat, which could result in gunfire. And that’s precisely what occurred. The officers misperceived the threat posed by the placement of the BB gun on the floor, so they repeatedly shot the Mendezes. The events that occurred were the foreseeable result of the officers’ armed entry. Thus, their unlawful entry, together with their failure to knock and announce, were both proximate causes of the Mendezes’ injuries, the Court held.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding the officers liable for violating the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights. The Court directed that on remand “the judgment shall be amended to award all damages arising from the shooting in the Mendezes’ favor as proximately caused by the unconstitutional entry, and proximately caused by the failure to get a warrant.” See: Mendez v. County of Los Angeles, 897 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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