Tag Archives: Fourth Amendment

The Law of Excessive Force and Police Shootings


As much as we all want the world to fit into what our minds eye believes the world should be it will never happen. On the lighter side I cannot understand why people drive so fast into a red stop light. On the more distressing side I cannot understand why people are shot dead under certain circumstances. I am not going to get into specific situations other than the circumstances in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision discussed in this article. The question we should all be focusing on is “Was the police killing a case of excessive force under the law?” I am not trying to make a political statement or stir anything up. It is has been stirred up my entire life. I just get tired of people throwing around language about this issue without knowing the law about it (excessive force by police) in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That said, I cannot imagine being a police officer and trying to make split second decisions regarding life and death. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held the shooting was not justified or reasonable. The Orange County District Attorney’s office did not file criminal charges against the shooting officer and held the shooting was justified and reasonable.

You can now be the judge.

A.K.H., a minor by and through her Guardian Ad Litem Elizabeth Landeros et. al. vs. City of Tustin et. al.; Case No. 14-55184; Date filed September 16, 2016

This appeal is about an officer involved shooting of an unarmed man in Tustin, California in 2011. After the shooting of Benny Herrera, the officer who shot Mr. Herrera tried to get summary judgment in his favor in a civil case against him and the City of Tustin by arguing he cannot be prosecuted based upon “qualified immunity.” Qualified immunity more or less is the doctrine saying I was just doing my job so I should not be held civilly liable for money damages to alleged victims. This civil lawsuit, for money, is by the relatives of Mr. Herrera under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 (Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights). Section 1983 provides as follows:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”

The Circumstances and Facts of the Herrera Shooting

This unfortunate sequence of events is initiated because of an argument about a cellphone. It starts with a call from Mr. Herrera’s girlfriend who told police Mr. Herrera had “jacked” her phone. Initially the girlfriend said there was no physical contact, but later in the phone call said Mr. Herrera hit her in the head when they were arguing about the cellphone. The girlfriend said she was fine, her kids were fine and there was no need for medical attention. The girlfriend told dispatch that Mr. Herrera had no weapons, was not known to use weapons and had never been violent with her before. The girlfriend said Mr. Herrera was walking on El Camino towards Redhill to catch a bus. This information was reported by dispatch to responding officers along with Mr. Herrera was “shown in-house to be a member of the “Southside Gang“ and that there was possibly a $35,000 traffic warrant out for Herrera’s arrest. The dispatcher reported, further, that Herrera was on “parole for 11350,” a reference to a state drug possession crime. See Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11350.

When the first police officer on scene made contact with Mr. Herrera the officer turned on his patrol vehicle lights. Mr. Herrera responded by putting his right hand in his hoodie pocket and walking backwards into the middle of the road away from the patrol vehicle. Prior to the second officer boxing Mr. Herrera in the first officer told Mr. Herrera three times on the loud speaking to get down. Mr. Herrera did not comply and continued down the road. The second officer arrived on scene, the shooter, and used his patrol vehicle to box in Mr. Herrera to prevent escape. The first officer had his vehicle door open and weapon drawn since coming into contact with Mr. Herrera. Now the shooting officer had his door open and weapon drawn to the side of Mr. Herrera to box him in. As Mr. Herrera moved towards the shooting officer’s vehicle the shooting officer told Mr. Herrera to “get your hand out of your pocket.” Mr. Herrera complied and removed his right hand from his pocket in an arching motion and placed his hand over his head. Just as Mr. Herrera’s hand came out of his pocket the shooting officer fired two shots in rapid succession without any warning to Mr. Herrera. Both of the officers on scene stated they did not see anything in Mr. Herrera’s hands. The shooting officer testified he shot Mr. Herrera because he believed Mr. Herrera had a weapon and was going to use the weapon on the shooting officer. The dashboard camera from the shooting officer’s patrol car showed the command to get your hand out of your pocket and the two shots were almost simultaneous, separated by less than a second. The total time from when the first officer made contact with Mr. Herrera to when the shooting officer shot Mr. Herrera was less than one minute. The officer who shot Mr. Herrera did not claim he saw, or thought he saw Mr. Herrera with a weapon.

Fourth Amendment Law Regarding Excessive Force

In determining whether the shooting officer is entitle to qualified immunity to obtain a judgment in his favor and not against him for excessive force the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asked two questions:

(1) Did the shooting officer use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 823 (9th Cir. 2010)

(2) If the shooting officer uses excessive force, did he violate a clearly established right?

Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 823 (9th Cir. 2010)

Excessive force claims are analyzed under the Fourth Amendment of the United State Constitution.

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 388 (1989)
Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7 (1985)

The analysis of the shooting officer’s actions is, “are the actions ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them without taking into account the underlying intent or motivation?”

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989)

To determine reasonableness of the shooting officer’s actions the court must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interest against the importance of the governmental interest alleged to justify the intrusion.

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8 (1985)
United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 703 (1983)

The court must look at the totality of the circumstances paying close attention to the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 9 (1985)
Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)

The most important factor is whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.

Mattos v. Agarano, 661 F.3d 433, 441(9th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (Quoting Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689,702(9th Cir. 2005) (en banc))

Deadly force is only allowed if a suspect threatens the officer with an actual weapon or there is probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm.

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11 (1985)

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Analysis

In this case the court of appeals pulled no punches. The appeals court held the shooting officer’s intrusion on Mr. Herrera’s Fourth Amendment interest was extreme. In this case the government’s interest was not sufficient for use of deadly force. The crime at issue here was a domestic dispute the ended before the police became involved.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied qualified immunity in the Smith case to officers who used pepper spray and a dog to subdue and arrest a suspect, even though the suspect was reported to have “hit” or become “physical” with his wife.

Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689,702-703 (9th Cir. 2005)

The use of force is especially difficult to justify when “the domestic dispute is seemingly over by the time the officers begin their investigation.” Denied qualified immunity in an excessive force case partly because the victim of the domestic disturbance “was unscathed and not in jeopardy when deputies arrived.”

George v. Morris, 736 F.3d 829, 839 (9th Cir.2013)

Officer denied qualified immunity partly because, by the time the officers arrived, the suspect was standing on his porch alone and separated from his wife.

Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689,702-703 (9th Cir. 2005)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the shooting officer came upon Mr. Herrera away from the scene of the alleged domestic dispute and Mr. Herrera did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others. It was clear that the alleged domestic dispute was over and Mr. Herrera posed no threat to his girlfriend. It is important to note that the law requires the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs and not the shooting officer or the City of Tustin. Again, you can be your own judge based upon the facts. So, now to the most important part of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, they held that the shooting officer could not have reasonably believed Mr. Herrera posed a threat.

In addition, the dispatcher told the officers Mr. Herrera was not armed or known to use weapons. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appease noted Mr. Herrera had prior run-ins with the law, but those were minor incidents that did not involve violence or gun possession.

Even if Mr. Herrera was actively resisting or attempting to evade an investigatory stop, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held this factor only slightly favors the government and shooting officer. Mr. Herrera did not stop upon being requested to or get on the ground as requested. At the same time Mr. Herrera never attempted to cross the road or flee. Mr. Herrera just stayed on his same course.

Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F.3d 1272, 1278 (9thCir. 2001)

The most important factor was the fact that the shooting officer escalated to deadly force so quickly. The shooting officer commanded Mr. Herrera to remove his hand from his pocket almost immediately upon contact then shot Mr. Herrera just as Mr. Herrera was taking his hand out of his right pocket. The shooting officer did not wait to see if anything was actually in Mr. Herrera’s hand before shooting him twice. To summarize:

1. No serious crime reported;
2. No indication a weapon was involved;
3. Dispatch said suspect not known to carry weapons;
4. Mr. Herrera was sought to be detained and not arrested;
5. Mr. Herrera complied with the shooting officers command to remove his hand;
6. The removal of hand from pocket and shooting were virtually simultaneous;
7. The shooting officer gave no warning he was going to shoot;
8. Mr. Herrera never verbally threatened the officers.

But Was There An Established Right To Fourth Amendment Protection
At The Time of The Violation?

So after all of that analysis and a finding there was excessive force, there is still the issue of whether Mr. Herrera had a clearly established right to protection by the Fourth Amendment?

Espinosa v. City & Cty. of San Francisco, 598 F.3d 528, 532 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Saucier v.Katz,533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001))

Just in case you did not know, just because you are in the United State of America does not mean you are entitle to all of the protections the U.S. Constitution provides you. You have almost no constitutional rights at airports (search and seizure), military bases and other places where national security is at issue.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Mr. Herrara did in fact have an established right to the Fourth Amendment at the time of the violation. To summarize, underlying call to the police did not involve the use of serious or deadly force. It was about a cellphone. Also, the shooting officer did not have any articulable basis to think Mr. Herrera was armed.


The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that is has been a long standing principle that a police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead.

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11 (1985)

So next time you get into it with someone about a police shooting use the law and factors listed in this article to back up your argument whether the shooting by the police is justified under the circumstances.