SCOTUS Hears Case on the Use of Force in Law Enforcement

By Kenrya Rankin Mar 22, 2017

Angel Mendez and Jennifer Garcia were lying on their futon in October 2010 when two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies opened the door to the wooden shed where they were living without knocking. As he sat up, Mendez moved the BB gun he kept nearby to shoot pests—and the deputies fired 15 bullets at him and Garcia, who was pregnant. Both were severely injured, and Mendez had to have his leg amputated below the knee.

Per SCOTUSblog, the deputies were searching for a “parolee-at-large” who was previously spotted on a bicycle out front. The officers gained entry to the main house via threat (and without a warrant), and after not finding their target, went to “clear the backyard.” They were told that the couple was in the shack, but entered it anyway, guns drawn.

The couple filed a civil rights suit against Los Angeles County and the two deputies, alleging that they violated their Fourth Amendment rights on three counts: entry without a warrant, entry without knock and announcement, and excessive force. The court ruled in their favor and awarded them $4.2 million in damages—plus $1 for the illegal search—and concluded that:

…“at the moment of shooting” the deputies’ use of deadly force was “objectively reasonable” because they reasonably believed “a man was holding a firearm rifle threatening their lives.” Still, the court concluded, the county was liable because the deputies had “recklessly provoke[d] a violent confrontation” by not having a search warrant and by not knocking and announcing, and had thus “creat[ed] the situation which caused” the injuries.

The county appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that failing to knock and announce themselves was not a violation because it is not clear that they needed to re-announce themselves for a separate residence on the same property, but that “the deputies are liable for the shooting as a foreseeable consequence of their unconstitutional entry even though the shooting itself was not unconstitutionally excessive force.”

The county then asked the Supreme Court to take up County of Los Angeles v. Mendez. The eight-member bench is hearing arguments today (March 22). The county argues that the Fourth Amendment’s section on excessive force should only apply to the moment that the force is applied. But the couple argues that the officers’ prior actions created the circumstances that lead to the use of potentially deadly force.

Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of the NAACP and the Policy Council on Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill that explores the potential impact of this case on people of color and people with intellectual disabilities. From the brief:

The approach advocated by Petitioners, by which excessive force claims would be judged solely by looking at the circumstances at the moment force was used, would signify a retreat from this Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents, incentivize police to disregard the Fourth Amendment and endanger public safety….

People of color will be among those to most acutely feel the effect of any decision that retreats from the Court’s traditional totality of circumstances analysis, particularly in the context of facts like these. Social science research indicates that implicit bias poses its greatest danger when officers are faced with making split-second judgments about the use of deadly force in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly-evolving, and that people of color are more likely to be perceived as deadly threats in such situations. It is thus critical for the safety of people of color in this country that this Court acknowledge and account for the emerging literature on implicit bias when crafting rules effecting the lawful use of force.

It is likewise important to the safety of people with mental illness that the constitutional framework for excessive force claims not retreat from a totality of the circumstances approach. If a court is focused solely on the moment force is used, with no regard for the preceding circumstances, then force used against such individuals will almost never be deemed unreasonable.

People suffering from mental illness will be acutely vulnerable to the impact of any decision that extends the principle of immunity for the proximate consequences of unannounced, forcible entries into a home. They are more likely to have difficulty comprehending an unannounced entry, and many are likely to react in ways that will prompt officers to feel the need to employ deadly force. Officers often reasonably misinterpret the behavior, demeanor and intentions of people with mental illness or disability, and an officer’s show of force to a mentally disturbed individual will not always have the intended effect. These factors help account for the fact that a significant number of those killed by police officers in the United States die while in the midst of a mental health crisis.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is expected to come this summer.

*Article updated to reflect amount awarded for damages.