Gunned Down by Cops When Minding Your Own Business

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

The Supreme Court issued a ruling last week in the case of County of Los Angeles v. Mendez. The case involved a police shooting and the ruling involves some technical legal analysis regarding the proper application of prior Supreme Court precedents.

In this post I want to take a step back from the technical legal discussion and highlight the facts of the case, which are quite sad.

In October 2010, Angel Mendez and his then pregnant girlfriend, Jennifer Garcia, were dirt poor. They lived in a one room shack, made of plywood, in the backyard of a home owned by Paula Hughes in Lancaster, California.

On the awful day in question, the couple were not bothering anyone. They were actually napping in their tiny shack when their world was suddenly shattered.

Without any announcement at all, a police officer entered the shack. Startled, Angel got up and grabbed a BB gun that he kept in the shack to kill rodents and other pests. The deputy then yelled "Gun!" to alert his fellow officers of potential danger.

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In a moment, several police officers entered and opened fire, discharging a total of 15 rounds. Both Angel Mendez and Jennifer Garcia were shot "multiple times and suffered severe injuries." Mr. Mendez's right leg had to be amputated below the knee.

Two people minding their own business and, in just a few moments, the police are shooting at them. The police did not accuse them of violating any law. They were totally innocent.

Some of about 125 weapons confiscated during what the federal authorities say is the largest gang takedown in United States history are displayed at a press conference to announce the arrests of scores of alleged gang members and associates on federal racketeering and drug-trafficking charges on May 21, 2009 in the Los Angeles-area community of Lakewood, California. 147 people were indicted in the case involving racially motivated attacks on African-Americans and law enforcement officers. Operation Knockout is the latest of several investigations that found gangs engaged in race-based violence. Two years ago, a Latino gang was charged with waging a violent campaign to drive blacks out of a Los Angeles-area neighborhood that resulted in 20 homicides. Last year, another Latino gang was accused of targeting blacks and killing 14-year-old Cheryl Green, whose death became a community rallying point. In 2006, Avenues gang members Latinos were convicted of assaults and killings of blacks in the 1990s. David McNew/reuters

Since Angel and Jennifer Mendez (they were subsequently married) knew they had done nothing wrong, they filed a lawsuit against the police officers and the police department. The government's response was that it was just a tragic accident and no one was really to blame. Since the BB gun resembled a real rifle, the deputies acted reasonably under the circumstances.

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The Supreme Court, as noted above, addressed certain Fourth Amendment precedents that had been in place in the lower federal court, and remanded the case for further proceedings. It remains to be seen whether the couple will receive the $4 million in damages that the district judge awarded, or whether that legal win will be reversed.

It is worth noting here that the case does not have to run its course thru additional legal proceedings. A just government would never have waited for a lawsuit to be filed. An apology and a lavish settlement offer would have been quickly forthcoming.

The County of Los Angeles can still do the right thing. Rein in the county lawyers and agree to the $4 million in money damages that the federal district court previously awarded to Angel and Jennifer.

That would be a decent outcome for the Mendez family, to the extent that money can address such a horrific episode.

Tim Lynch is the director of Cato's project on criminal justice.