Justices Weigh Police Shooting Standards

Just how much care police owe to citizens before the pull their weapons and open fire, proved to be a touchy topic for the California Supreme Court Wednesday.

The justices grappled with a question put to them by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a civil rights action filed by the daughter of a suicidal man who was shot and killed by San Diego sheriff’s deputies who had come to help.

Justices showed little sympathy for imposing a new standard of care on police for tactical decisions in the highly charged period shortly before a shooting.

In 2006 two San Diego County Sheriffs’ deputies responded to a neighbor’s call of a domestic disturbance. Shane Hayes’ girlfriend told deputies he was inside the house and had threatened suicide. Deputies found Hayes in the kitchen and ordered him to “show his hands.” When he showed a knife in one both deputies drew weapons and opened fire.

The 9th Circuit in 2011 revived the dismissed civil rights suit thinking that perhaps that the California Supreme Court would interpret state law as finding the deputies owe a duty of care to citizens before they open fire.

So the question they asked the state’s high court to resolve was whether the officers’ preshooting conduct constituted a breach of a duty of care, independent of the later justified shooting.  Was Hayes simply complying with the deputies’ command when he was shot.

“The weapons were holstered and we have to determine if officers’ conduct was reasonable,” said Justice Joyce Kennard.

Justice Marvin Baxter asked if Hayes had killed himself while officers had “dilly-dallied around” outside asking questions about Hayes’ state of mind, as the plaintiff suggested, would the county be liable for a claim of negligence.

He added, “Both officers reacted the same way [shooting at the same time].  That tells me they did not act negligently.”

Justice Carol Corrigan suggested the plaintiff was arguing that the officers would have to call a psychological team in and hope he didn’t kill himself in the meantime.

Justice Goodwin Liu said the plaintiffs would break use of deadly force into two considerations, separating the pre-shooting conduct to create potential liability for an otherwise justified shooting.  “Why not consider the totality of the circumstances?  Why not treat it as one event?”

Case: Hayes v. County of San Diego, No. S193997

9th Circuit Case:  Hayes v. County of San Diego, No. 09-55644