SCOTUS Refuses to Hold Police Liable for Shooting a Homeless Couple During a Warrantless Raid
by Nisha Whitehead
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Continuing a disturbing trend of siding with police in cases of excessive use of force, the United States Supreme Court has reversed lower court rulings that found police liable for recklessly firing 15 times into a backyard shack in which a homeless couple—Angel and Jennifer Mendez—was sheltering. Angel Mendez suffered numerous gunshot wounds, one of which required the amputation of his right leg below the knee, and his wife Jennifer was shot in the back.
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the Los Angeles County police officers’ use of force against the homeless couple was justified as a defensive action, because Angel’s silhouette was allegedly seen holding a BB gun that he used for shooting rats. The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that the shooting, which was entirely unjustified and unwarranted, would not have happened had Los Angeles County police officers not first created an untenable, dangerous situation by invading private property without a warrant in pursuit of an alleged parole violator.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez are available at www.rutherford.org. Affiliate attorney Anand Agneshwar of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, LLP, assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the Mendez brief.
“What we are dealing with is a nationwide epidemic of court-sanctioned police violence carried out against individuals posing little or no real threat, who are nevertheless subjected to such excessive police force as to end up maimed or killed,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The U.S. Supreme Court has in the past rationalized its support of qualified immunity for government officials (including police officers) on the grounds that these officials might be too cautious in carrying out their duties if there was a risk that they might be held personally liable for wrongdoing on the job. Frankly, we’d be far better off as a nation if all government officials operated under the constant fear that there would be ramifications for official misconduct.”
On October 1, 2010, a 12-person team of Los Angeles County police officers responded to a call that a parole violator was seen entering a store. A search of the store did not turn up the parolee. The officers then received another tip that the parolee had been sighted on a bike in front of the residence of Paula Hughes. The police officers were aware that Angel and Jennifer Mendez, a homeless couple, lived in the backyard of the Hughes residence. Upon arriving at the Hughes residence, two officers were sent to the backyard in order to secure the area and prevent the parolee from possibly escaping via the rear of the home. After a forced entry into the Hughes residence failed to find the parolee, two officers began a search of the backyard and approached the shack occupied by Angel and Jennifer Mendez. Without knocking or announcing themselves and without a warrant, the police opened the door to the shack and saw the silhouette of Angel Mendez, who was allegedly holding a BB gun that he used to shoot rats. One of the officers yelled “Gun!” and both police officers proceeded to fire 15 shots into the shack. Angel Mendez suffered numerous gunshot wounds, one of which required the amputation of his right leg below the knee, and Jennifer Mendez was shot in the back. Although police argued that the presence of the BB gun justified the shooting, the lower courts rejected their defense, ruling that where an officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation, the officer may be held liable for his use of deadly force.