U.S. justices to weigh $4 million damages in California police shooting

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 02, 2016 4:15 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider overturning $4 million in damages awarded to a homeless couple who sued after being shot 15 times in a backyard shack by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who were searching for another man.

The justices will hear an appeal by the two deputies, Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson, and the county of a lower court's ruling upholding the damages awarded by a judge in 2013 to Angel and Jennifer Mendez, who resided in the wooden shack and sustained serious injuries in the 2010 incident.

The Supreme Court will consider whether the two deputies can claim immunity in their defense of the civil rights lawsuit filed by the couple. The case comes before the justices at a time of heightened concern over use of excessive force by U.S. police after a series of fatal shootings in recent years.

The incident took place in Lancaster, a city within Los Angeles County, after 12 officers responded to a call that a wanted parolee named Ronnie O'Dell had been spotted in the area. Deputies decided to search a shack at the rear of a house and conducted a warrantless raid. The two deputies opened the door to the shack unannounced, saw Angel Mendez holding what they thought was a rifle and opened fire 15 times.

Angel Mendez was in fact holding a BB gun that he used to kill rodents. His right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of the shooting. Jennifer Mendez, pregnant at the time, was shot in the back.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March ruled in favor of the couple, saying the deputies were not immune from the lawsuit because they provoked a violent confrontation. The district judge who awarded the damages found that the deputies did not use excessive force but were nevertheless liable for damages because of the provocation.

The appeal by the deputies and county took issue with the judge's reasoning. If the justices agree with that argument, their ruling could protect police officers facing civil lawsuits in similar cases.

Police officers are generally protected from civil rights claims relating to use of force unless plaintiffs can show that the action clearly violated the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The court will hear arguments and issue a ruling by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)