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California Wrongful Death: Police Cannot Use Force to Compel Medical Treatment

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A wrongful death case of alleged police force in West Covina, California recently resulted in a $1.5 million award for the family of the victim. After leaving a hospital while in the midst of alcohol detoxification treatment, 42-year-old David Mendoza was arrested for suspected burglary after attempting to break into a house to call his family. Complaining of illness, Mendoza was taken by police to a hospital, where they alleged a struggle ensued while he was restrained and awaiting treatment, during which police repeatedly punched and Tased him. Witnesses testified that Mendoza’s behavior did not merit the use of such force.

“While the use of force is necessary for police in certain instances, the facts of this case do not suggest that this was one of them,” explained James Ballidis, a personal injury attorney in Orange County, California.

Although the Los Angles County District Attorney determined that no excessive force had been used, a Los Angeles jury in a civil lawsuit filed by Mendoza’s family came to a different conclusion. They awarded $750,000 to each of Mendoza’s two sons. This verdict was appealed and upheld by the appellate court.

According to the appellate court ruling, it was reasonable for the jury to conclude from the evidence that, “[Officer Enrique] Macias punched and tasered a non-resisting and compliant man that he knew was emotionally troubled and physically ill.” It was also reasonable to expect that, even in 2007, an officer would be aware that the use of a taser under these circumstances could constitute excessive force.

Police had taken Mendoza to the hospital where he was handcuffed to a chair and awaiting medical attention. As such, the attorney for Mendoza’s children indicated that police had no right to use force in order to compel medical treatment. In fact, there is no general rule establishing the right of police to use force in order to compel someone to receive medical attention. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has indicated in Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dep’t of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 278 (1990) (citing Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 494 (1980); Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 600 (1979) that there is “a general liberty interest in refusing medical treatment.”

Police officers in the Mendoza case, however, could argue that this struggle was not to compel Mendoza to seek medical treatment but instead was to keep someone who was in their custody under reasonable control. Even if this argument was successful, however, in order to be justified in using force, the force must be reasonable. Punching, repeatedly tasing and using multiple officers to restrain an unarmed man seems a far cry from reasonable force.

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