Supreme Court Takes Up Case on Liability When Police Provoke Violence

By | December 6, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether Los Angeles County and two police officers must pay a $4 million award to a couple shot during a search for someone else.

The case, which comes at a time of heightened national attention to shootings by police, will test whether law enforcement officials can be held liable when they needlessly provoke a violent confrontation.

Angel Mendez was shot multiple times during the 2010 incident, and his right leg was later amputated below the knee. His wife, Jennifer Mendez, was shot in the back.

At the time of the incident the couple were in what served as their home, a wooden shack located in the backyard of a friend. Police were on the scene searching for a felony suspect they believed to be armed and dangerous.

Although the officers had been told that the Mendezes lived in the backyard, they didn’t knock or announce their presence when they opened the door to the windowless shack. Angel Mendez then put his hand on a BB gun he used to shoot rodents. One officer shouted “gun” and police fired 15 shots at the Mendezes.

A federal trial judge said the shooting itself didn’t amount to excessive force because the officers reasonably feared for their safety. But he awarded the couple $4 million on the grounds that police provoked the confrontation. A San Francisco-based appeals court upheld the award, saying the officers had been reckless.

The county argues that a 1989 Supreme Court ruling precludes liability for provocation when the use of force itself was reasonable.

The court will hear arguments next year and rule by June. The case is Los Angeles County v. Mendez, 16-369.

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