The Ninth Circuit has issued many opinions involving federal civil rights that have helped victims of unjustified police shootings achieve justice. Today's opinion of Mendez v. County of Los Angeles is one such opinion, in which the Ninth Circuit affirmed Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald's ruling in favor of two police shooting victims under the Section 1983 provocation theory.
The case of Mendez v. County of Los Angeles arose in connection with a search by various LASD deputies for a robbery suspect. The search led the officers to a home and to a 7'x7'x7' handmade dwelling made of wood and plywood located behind the home. Plaintiffs Angel and Jennifer Mendez were homeless but the homeowner had allowed them to construct the dwelling and live there.
As the officers were milling around the property, two of them decided to enter the handmade dwelling, even though they did not have a warrant to do so. Angel Mendez happened to be holding a BB gun at the time, which he used to kill rats. Angel Mendez was not using the BB gun in a threatening manner but rather was just trying to move it out of the way so he could get up (presumably to deal with whomever was barging into his home). The officers shot Angel Mendez and Jennifer Mendez multiple times, resulting in serious injuries including a leg amputation for Mr. Mendez.
The Mendez' sued the officers who shot them as well as the County of Los Angeles for civil rights violations arising out of the police shooting. After a bench trial, the judge ruled that the officers violated the Mendez' Fourth Amendment rights because they entered the home without a warrant and without any exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless entry. The court held that the police shooting was not excessive force, per se, given the BB gun (which the officers did not know was a BB gun), but that the officers were still liable for the police shooting under the Section 1983 "provocation" theory.
The Section 1983 provocation theory has been articulated by the Ninth Circuit as follows: “[W]here an officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation, if the provocation is an independent Fourth
Amendment violation, he may be held liable for his otherwise defensive use of deadly force.” (citing Billington v. Smith, 292 F.3d
1177, 1189 (9th Cir. 2002)).
In Mendez v. County of Los Angeles, the court awarded the victims approximately $4 million in damages, holding that: "the situation in this case, where Mendez was holding a gun when the officers barged into the shack unnannounced, was reasonably
foreseeable. The deputies are therefore liable for the shooting as a foreseeable consequence of their unconstitutional entry even though the shooting itself was not unconstitutionally
excessive force under the Fourth Amendment."