Hayes vs San Diego: Examining Liability for Law Enforcement Tactics


In a recent case, Hayes v. County of San Diego, the California Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers can be held liable for negligence based on their tactical conduct leading up to the use of deadly force. This landmark decision highlights the importance of considering the totality of circumstances when assessing the reasonableness of an officer’s actions. Let’s delve deeper into the details of this case.

The Facts

In 2006, deputies from the San Diego County Sheriffs arrived at Shane Hayes’ residence after receiving a distress call from a concerned neighbor. Hayes’ girlfriend informed the deputies that he had attempted suicide earlier and expressed concern for his safety. However, the deputies failed to inquire about Hayes’ sobriety or his previous suicide attempt.

Upon entering the living room with their guns holstered, the deputies encountered Hayes standing in the kitchen. Deputy King ordered Hayes to show his hands, but as Hayes complied, he approached the deputies with a large knife in his raised hand. In response, the deputies simultaneously fired two shots each, resulting in Hayes’ death.

The Legal Question

Hayes’ daughter filed a lawsuit against the County, alleging negligence on the part of the deputies for their tactical decisions before the shooting. The district court granted summary judgment, asserting that the deputies’ use of deadly force was reasonable given the threatening nature of Hayes’ conduct. However, the case reached the California Supreme Court, which had to determine whether liability could arise from law enforcement’s tactical conduct preceding the use of deadly force.

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The Existence of a Duty

The California Supreme Court affirmed that public employees, including law enforcement officers, are statutorily liable to the same extent as private individuals for injuries resulting from their acts or omissions. In order to establish negligence, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had a duty to exercise due care, breached that duty, and caused the resulting injury.

The court emphasized that peace officers have a duty to act reasonably when using deadly force. To illustrate this point, they referenced a previous case, Grudt v. City of Los Angeles, where officers’ preshooting conduct influenced the jury’s determination of whether the shooting was negligent.

Liability for Preshooting Conduct

The court clarified that an officer’s duty to act reasonably when using deadly force extends to their preshooting conduct. However, the reasonableness of preshooting conduct should not be considered in isolation but as part of the totality of circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force.

While the court acknowledged that law enforcement personnel have discretion in addressing specific situations, they stressed that a plaintiff could still pursue a case based on the reasonableness of preshooting conduct. The court also highlighted that adherence to a specific preshooting protocol is not always necessary and that summary judgment may be appropriate if no reasonable juror could find negligence based on the given facts.

The Impact on Law Enforcement Agencies

The Hayes case reinforces the long-standing principle that law enforcement officers are expected to act reasonably when using deadly force. This analysis encompasses both the preshooting conduct and the actual use of force. It is crucial for officers to understand that their decisions will be scrutinized as part of the totality of circumstances.

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While it is impossible to predict the outcome of a standoff situation, officers should exercise sound judgment and consider the reasonableness of their actions. Seeking guidance from legal counsel is essential in understanding how this ruling applies to individual agencies.

Please note that the information provided in this article is for general use and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult your agency’s designated legal counsel for specific guidance. For further discussion on this case, feel free to contact us at (714) 446-1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.