Southern Coalition for Social Justice files brief in police shooting case, County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice has filed a Brief of Amici Curiae on behalf of the NAACP and Policy Council on Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill (PCLEMI) in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Scheduled to be argued in March, the case involves important questions about the facts and circumstances courts should consider when evaluating the reasonableness of a police officer’s use of deadly force. The brief can be read at southerncoalition.org/mendez.

Angel Mendez and his wife Jennifer were laying on a futon in their home in June 2010 when two LA County Sheriff’s Deputies, searching for another person who had earlier been sighted nearby, made an unannounced, warrantless entry through the front door.  The deputies’ sudden entry prompted Angel Mendez to sit up.  Mendez’s movement caused a broken BB gun to shift and inadvertently face the front door, causing the deputies to perceive a threat and open fire.  The deputies fired 15 shots at Angel and Jennifer, who was 7 months pregnant.  The couple suffered severe, permanent injuries, and Angel’s leg had to be amputated.  By the deputies’ own admission, the Mendezes committed no wrongdoing.  There was nothing they could have done to avoid being shot, and they had no connection to the individual the deputies had been searching for.

The Mendezes filed suit and secured a judgment that held the deputies liable for excessive force both under a theory of officer provocation and traditional tort law principles.  The defendants and various law enforcement and municipal organizations have now asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that judgment, arguing that that the presence of the BB gun made it reasonable for the deputies to perceive a threat warranting the use of deadly force.  They have asked the Court to hold that the deputies’ unlawful entry into the home is irrelevant for purposes of evaluating the reasonableness, and thus lawfulness, of their actions.  The United States has also filed a brief urging the Court to reverse the lower court decision.

SCSJ’s brief with the NAACP and PCLEMI urges the Court to do just the opposite and emphasizes the important role civil liability plays in deterring police misconduct.  The brief argues that when officers cause people to be subjected to deadly force in circumstances that are objectively unreasonable and of the officers’ own making, the Fourth Amendment holds them accountable.  This is particularly true in cases involving unannounced, warrantless entries into the home, which create a foreseeable danger of confrontation with a startled homeowner.  Courts rarely award anything more than nominal damages for an unlawful search.   The brief argues that if officers know they will not be held liable for the foreseeable consequences of unlawful searches, they are more likely to occur.

The brief also argues that the approach proposed by law enforcement organizations poses unique dangers to people of color, who have historically been subjected to disproportionate use of deadly force.  The brief highlights social science research about the danger of implicit bias, which poses its greatest threat when officers are faced with making split-second judgments about the use of deadly force in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.  A variety of studies are cited indicating that people of color are more likely to be perceived as deadly threats in such situations.  SCSJ and its partners argue the Court should account for the emerging literature on implicit bias when crafting rules affecting the lawful use of force.

The brief also argues that people suffering from mental illness will be acutely vulnerable to the impact of any decision that extends the principle of immunity for the proximate consequences of unannounced, forcible entries into a home. People with mental illness are more likely to have difficulty comprehending an unannounced entry, and many are likely to react in ways that will prompt officers to feel the need to employ deadly force.  The brief argues that it is important to the safety of people with mental illness that the constitutional framework for excessive force claims not retreat from a totality of the circumstances approach. If a court is focused solely on the moment force is used, with no regard for the preceding circumstances, then force used against such individuals will almost never be deemed unreasonable.

A decision in the case is expected this summer.