A federal judge awarded a Lancaster couple approximately $4 million Tuesday for a shooting three years ago that left a man with an amputated leg.
Two Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies shot Angel Mendez, 32, a total of 14 times during a search for a parolee on October 1, 2010. His wife Jennifer Mendez, 31, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was shot once in the back and suffered a fractured collarbone, according to court documents. They sued L.A. County in June 2011.
Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled in favor of the couple, finding that their constitutional rights to privacy were violated when deputies subjected them to an unlawful search and seizure. Fitzgerald found the deputies didn’t have legal grounds to search the background and therefore are responsible for damages.
“It’s hard to imagine how two people could be at fault for lying in a shack on a bed doing nothing,” said Gerald Ryckman, one of the couple’s attorneys.
Steve Whitmore, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said the ruling surprised department officials, especially the finding that the deputies had conducted an unlawful search. He defended the two deputies, saying the judge did find that deputies' response to the threat was warranted.
“This individual did pull a weapon on our deputies forcing them to respond because they feared for their safety,” he said.
The shooting started with a search for a drug-using parolee, suspected of violating his parole agreement and was believed to be hiding from authorities. One of the deputies on the search team got a tip from an informant who said they had seen the wanted parolee in the 18th Street West area of Lancaster, court filings stated.
That’s the same street Angel and Jennifer Mendez were living on, in a backyard shed behind a front house. The couple had fallen on hard times and were practically homeless, said the judge. A friend of Angel Mendez allowed them to stay in the shack-like structure till they got back on their feet.
“There was no evidence that this wanted parolee was at either one of these houses,” Ryckman said. “Even if he was, they had to have a search warrant to go in and look for him.”
The couple, who was not charged at the time of the search, alleged in the lawsuit that the deputies didn’t knock or announce themselves before entering the shack. The also alleged deputies had obtained no search warrant.
Deputies called the two dwellings “dope houses.” They claim they didn’t know or couldn’t have known people were living inside the barely-habitable shack in the backyard.
But in court Tuesday, Judge Fitzgerald said that because there was an electrical cord running to the shack, clothes hanging outside with a garden hose and an air conditioning unit, deputies should have known there was someone living there. Not to mention, the judge added, that during the search briefing, a deputy informed the team that someone was living in the back house.
“It was not a traditional dwelling but it’s where they were living,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday during his ruling.
Deputies claim Angel Mendez pointed a rifle-style BB gun at them when they entered the shack-like residence. The couple disputed the allegation. Mendez said he was trying to put the BB gun on the ground. He said he bought the gun for shooting rats.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office declined to file charges in May 2011 against Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson, the deputies involved in the shooting. The D.A.’s report said because the deputies encountered a rifle pointed in their direction and feared for their lives, “they acted in lawful self-defense and defense of each other.”
Mendez’ attorneys originally asked the court for a total of about $16 million to pay for the 11 surgeries Angel Mendez underwent for his amputated leg, plus on-going medical care and loss of earnings.
Fitzgerald said that Angel Mendez’ testimony on how the shooting robbed him of his dignity and ability to provide for his family weighed into his decision to award the couple approximately $4 million. He also cited the emotional stress suffered by Jennifer Mendez, who was pregnant at the time.
“It will go a long way to make you financially whole,” he said.
The Mendez couple cried together in courtroom Tuesday after the hearing was over. Family members hugged the two in the hallway.
“I’m happy it’s over,” Angel Mendez said with a cracked voice as he shook his attorney’s hand. “Justice was served.”
Ryckman called the ruling vindicating for Angel and Jennifer Mendez but said the amount awarded would only be felt as a slap on the hand for the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, who he claims has violated people’s civil rights in the Antelope Valley for years with few repercussions.
Spokesman Whitmore said the sheriff's department would examine the ruling carefully and decide what the next step might be.
This story has been updated.