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LA Deputies Liable in Homeless Shooting

Los Angeles County Sheriffs’ deputies do not have immunity from a $4 million judgment after they shot a homeless couple during the warrantless search of a home the pair had been living behind, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The couple had been sleeping in a 7-foot square plywood shack behind a house where deputies say they thought a wanted parole violator had gone. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday upheld the finding that the deputies were not entitled to immunity for the warrantless search of the shack.

But the court reversed the nominal damages of $1 each for the homeless couple because, the court held, case law in 2010 had not clearly established that officers must “re-announce” their presence at a shack within the backyard, “even if it was obvious it was being used as a house.”

“We hold that the deputies violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law when entering the wooden shack without a warrant,” wrote Judge Ronald Gould for the panel.  He said later that, “To clearly establish the law going forward, we hold that the deputies violated the Fourth Amendment when they failed to knock at the shack.”

In 2010, Deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson were part of a 12-member team that responded to a call that a parolee was seen entering a grocery store.  He wasn’t there but an hour later he was allegedly spotted outside the house belonging to Paula Hughes. Hughes had allowed a homeless couple, Angel Mendez and Jennifer Garcia, to live in a plywood shack behind her home, the court said.

Deputies never found anyone in Hughes’ home, except an angry Hughes.  When the deputies searched the buildings in the back yard, Conley did not announce his presence but opened a wooden door and pulled back a blanket used to insulate the shack.

Deputies saw the silhouette of a male holding what appeared to be a rifle pointed at them. Conley yelled, “Gun,” and both deputies fired a total of 15 shots. Mendez had been holding a BB gun he kept by the bed to shoot rats and was moving it to sit up when he was shot, according to the court.

The couple survived the shooting but Mendez had a leg amputated below the knee. They were awarded $4 million in damages for the shooting and nominal damages of $1 each for the unreasonable search and violation of the knock-and-announce requirement. The appeals court sent the case back to the trial judge with instructions that the couple would get the $4 million but would have to give up the $2.

Case: Mendez v. County of Los Angeles, No. 13-56686


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