The Supreme Court on Wednesday stepped in to the national conversation on police practices, wrestling with a California police shooting case where sheriff's deputies shot an innocent couple during their search for a wanted man.
The justices heard oral arguments in a 2010 case involving Los Angeles County deputies who shot a couple living in a shack in the backyard of a home in the city of Lancaster, north of Los Angeles.
The deputies entered the structure without a warrant and without announcing themselves, and the couple was ultimately awarded $4 million in the shooting.
"The question in the end is who bears the brunt of the officers' unreasonable conduct? Because there's no allegation here" that the couple did anything wrong, Justice Stephen Breyer said.
During the oral argument, some liberal justices signaled support for the couple while some conservative justices questioned the lower court's ruling.
In the case before the justices, deputies were told before they entered a cluttered backyard that a man and woman were staying in a shack there. The deputies ultimately entered the structure, one of several, not realizing it was a place where people were living.
When they entered, one of the officers saw a man holding a gun, shouted "gun" and two officers fired 15 shots. But the man deputies shot wasn't the man they were looking for but a man staying in the shack, Angel Mendez, and his pregnant girlfriend.
In a case of bad timing, Mendez had picked up a BB gun at the time officers entered in order to move it. As a result of the shooting, Mendez's leg had to be amputated below the knee.
Lower courts ruled the deputies were liable because they provoked the shooting by entering without a warrant.
During oral arguments Wednesday, the justices asked attorneys about a variety of scenarios involving law enforcement officers. They asked lawyers to discuss examples, including a plainclothes officer who breaks into a home in the dead of night and officers trying to negotiate with a mentally ill person with a hostage.
Attorney Leonard Feldman, representing the couple that was shot, asked the justices to uphold the lower court's ruling.
"When people know that they are dealing with known law enforcement officers, nobody goes anywhere near a gun for fear of being shot. But Mr. and Mrs. Mendez never had that opportunity," Feldman said, because deputies entered their home without a warrant or warning.
Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor at times seemed outraged by the case.
"Why wouldn't it be that a death or injury that results when somebody barges into, goes into somebody's home without legal authorization, that one of the things that foreseeably can result from that is a shooting?" Kagan asked E. Joshua Rosenkranz, a lawyer for the deputies and Los Angeles County.
Rosenkranz asked the justices to put themselves "in the shoes of these deputies," who were looking for someone believed to be armed and dangerous, saw a man with a gun and shot because they thought they were in danger.
Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Rosenkranz that getting a warrant would not have made a difference in the case.
"I don't know why the failure to get a warrant matters," Roberts said.
A lawyer arguing on behalf of the U.S. government, Nicole Saharsky, asked the justices to side with the deputies, arguing that law enforcement officers are making "incredibly difficult determinations" and that the lower court's ruling in the case allows impermissible "second-guessing" of those decisions.
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