SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court revived a wrongful death lawsuit against San Diego County on Monday, ruling that a jury should determine whether two sheriff’s deputies who killed a suicidal man who was wielding a knife acted negligently.
A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided 2-1 to overturn a lower court’s ruling for the county and to let a jury decide whether two deputies violated the law when they entered the man’s house in 2006 without first thoroughly investigating him and gunned him down without having ordered him to halt.
“The circumstances of this case can be viewed in multiple ways: as ‘suicide by cop,’ as officers suddenly threatened with a deadly weapon, or as a depressed man simply holding a knife when confronted by law enforcement,” Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote for the majority.
The fatal shooting of Shane Hayes occurred after two San Diego County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call of a domestic disturbance at a neighbor’s house.
Geri Neill, the owner of the house, told the first deputy who arrived that she and Hayes, her boyfriend, had been arguing about his desire to kill himself but that there had been no physical altercation.
She said Hayes had tried to kill himself on prior occasions and wanted to commit suicide that night by inhaling exhaust fumes from his car. The deputy did not ask about the nature of Hayes’ prior attempts and did not know that he once tried to stab himself with a knife, the court said.
A second deputy arrived, and the two law enforcement officers entered the house to prevent the man from harming himself, according to the court.
The court said that after spotting Hayes in the dim light, one of the deputies ordered him to show his hands. Hayes raised his hands to shoulder level. In his right hand, he held a knife, the tip pointed downward. He took a few steps toward the deputies, who fired and killed him.
Neill said Hayes wore a “clueless” expression as he approached the deputies and had told them, “You want to take me to jail or you want to take me to prison, go ahead.”
The court said it would be up to a jury to determine whether the officers used excessive force.
“Although Hayes was walking towards the deputies, he was not charging them, and had not been ordered to stop,” the court said. “ He had committed no crime and had followed all orders from the deputies at the time he was shot.”
The court said the case hinged on whether it was reasonable for the deputies to have believed that Hayes posted an immediate threat to their safety and whether a shooting, rather than a warning, was warranted.
“Hayes’ unexpected possession of the knife alone — particularly when he had committed no crime and was confronted inside his own home — was not sufficient reason for the officers to employ deadly force,” the court said.
Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson argued in a dissent that Hayes clearly posed a threat to the deputies.
“Faced with a steadily advancing Hayes wielding a large knife, the officer had probable cause to believe that his life was in danger,” Rawlinson wrote. “As our precedent makes clear, an officer need not wait for the assailant to strike a blow before acting to ensure his safety and the safety of others.”
The 9th Circuit returned the case to the district court, instructing it to resolve a procedural question on standing.