Crime & Justice

Supreme court overturns $4M award to couple shot by LA sheriff’s deputies

Angel Mendez (second to left) and his wife Jennifer Lynn Garcia were shot by L.A. sheriff's deputies in 2010.
Angel Mendez (second to left) and his wife Jennifer Lynn Garcia were shot by L.A. sheriff's deputies in 2010.

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In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court Tuesday made it more difficult to sue police officers who accidentally shoot the wrong person. The case involved two LA County sheriff’s deputies who shot and wounded Angel Martinez and Jennifer Lynn Garcia in 2010 as they were lying on their bed inside a shack in Lancaster.

The deputies were searching for a parolee. They shot the couple when they entered the shack and saw Mendez holding a BB gun. Mendez was shot 14 times and doctors were forced to amputate his right leg. Garcia, who was pregnant at the time, was shot once in the back. She later gave birth to a baby boy.

A federal judge in L.A. awarded the couple $4 million. The 9th Circuit Court upheld the decision. It said that while the deputies reasonably feared for their lives when they opened fire, the county was liable because they provoked the confrontation by failing to get a search warrant and failing to identify themselves.

But the high court ruled you cannot hold police liable for constitutional violations that occurred before a reasonable shooting. It was a rejection of the so-called provocation rule used by some lower courts.

"A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure," Justice Samuel Alito wrote.

The labor union that represents sheriff’s deputies hailed the decision, as did a lawyer for Los Angeles county.

“This case is unquestionably tragic,” wrote Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva, senior assistant county counsel. But a sheriff’s deputy "must be free to make the split-second decision to defend himself and those around him."

Lawyers representing the couple were not immediately available for comment. 

The ruling is a setback for law enforcement watchdogs who say police mistakes too often lead to unjustified shootings.

The supreme court sent the case back to the appeals court to consider whether the couple may recover damage for their injuries "based on the deputies’ failure to secure a warrant at the outset."