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The California Supreme Court last week, in response to an apparent 2006 incidence of “suicide by cop” in the East County suburb of Santee, ruled that the San Diego Sheriff’s Department could potentially be liable for negligence in the series of events that led to the shooting death of Santee resident Shane Hayes.

Deputies Michael King and Sue Geer responded to a noise complaint at the Hayes residence on September 17, 2006. They were met by Hayes’ girlfriend, Geri Neill, who told King that Hayes had tried to kill himself earlier that evening by inhaling exhaust fumes from his car, that he had attempted to harm himself on other occasions, and that she was concerned for his safety.

While Neill told deputies that there were no guns in the house, they did not ask, nor did they discover until a later date, that Hayes had been drinking heavily that night. Nor were they aware that he had been taken into custody four months earlier after attempting suicide with a knife.

Nonetheless, deputies entered the living room and found Hayes standing in the kitchen. Refusing orders to raise his hands, Hayes instead advanced upon King and Geer with a large knife in his hand, prompting both deputies to un-holster their firearms and fire two shots each into Hayes, who had advanced to a distance of between two and eight feet. Hayes was killed as a result of the multiple gunshot wounds.

A year later, Hayes’ daughter Chelsey, who was 12 years old at the time of the shootings, filed suit against the County of San Diego and Deputies King and Geer, “asserting in various ways a violation of Shane’s right under the federal Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ‘to be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures’ and a violation of plaintiff’s own right under the federal Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment not to be ‘deprive[d of] . . . liberty . . . without due process of law’ (specifically, her liberty interest in the continuing companionship of her father),” according to California Supreme Court Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing on behalf of a unanimous court.

Chelsey Hayes also alleged negligence on the part of the deputies for their lack of caution in approaching her father, and negligent hiring, training, retention, and supervision on the part of the County.

A federal judge found in favor of King and Geer, ruling in a summary judgment dismissing all charges that “the deputies owed plaintiff no duty of care with regard to their pre-shooting conduct and decisions.”

Chelsey appealed the decision, and the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Diego deferred to the state Supreme Court in 2011, asking whether it was possible the deputies could be found negligent under state law.

The Supreme Court ruled yes, unanimously.

“Law enforcement personnel’s tactical conduct and decisions preceding the use of deadly force are relevant considerations under California law in determining whether the use of deadly force gives rise to negligence liability,” concludes Justice Kennard. “Such liability can arise, for example, if the tactical conduct and decisions show, as part of the totality of circumstances, that the use of deadly force was unreasonable. Whether defendants here acted reasonably is not for us to decide.”

The matter now returns to the federal appeals court.

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