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May Police Use Physical Force to Compel Suspects to Receive Medical Attention?

After police allegedly caused the death of a 42-year-old man while using force to compel medical treatment, a California court awarded his family $1.5 million in damages. The case not only raises questions about the laws governing police force but also delineates a specific instance when it is not permissible.


“Under California law, police may employ force in certain circumstances,” explained a personal injury lawyer in the state, “a threat to officers or to the public being one of the primary ones.”


In March 2007, a 42-year-old California man named David Mendoza was being treated for alcohol withdrawal when he tried to leave the hospital at 3:30 a.m. Mendoza subsequently tried to open the back window of a local neighborhood home, asking the resident of the home to use the telephone. When the homeowner telephoned the police, they came and arrested Mendoza on suspicion of burglary. After Mendoza complained of hearing voices and feeling pain, officer Enrique Macias took him from his holding cell to a hospital where he was handcuffed to a chair in preparation for blood being drawn. 


At this point, police officers allege that Mendoza grew agitated, insisting he did not want a needle in his arm, pushing against a female sheriff's deputy and generally presenting a threat to himself and to others in the hospital. Police investigations and reports from the officers at the scene indicated that Mendoza and the officers struggled and that Mendoza was Tased, punched and restrained by the officers. However, while witnesses also testify that Mendoza was Tased and restrained, these witnesses indicate that Mendoza made no threatening movements and was seated at the time when the officers began Tasing him and the struggle ensued. 


According to the record log built into the Taser of one officer, the Taser was fired a total of 14 times, in some cases for up to 30 seconds at a time. Further, allegations indicate that, in addition to being Tased, Mendoza was pinned to the ground by the officers, essentially rendered unable to breathe.  Police officers deny these allegations, indicating that the Taser log was malfunctioning. 


The use of force has long been a difficult issue as police sometimes need to use force to protect themselves or the public but, at the same time, must be respectful of the federal and state constitutional rights of potential defendants.  


The basic rule in California related to police officer use of force can be found in California Penal Code section 835a, which establishes that police may use reasonable force in preventing the escape or effecting the arrest of someone who the police officer believes has committed a public offense.  


Typically, the determination as to whether the officer or officers used reasonable force will be judged in light of the action of the individual being confronted; the age, skill level and relative size and strength of the officer(s) versus the victim; whether the victim is on drugs or intoxicated; the degree to which the individual being confronted is restrained; the degree to which the individual can still resist; the availability of alternative options other than the use of force; the seriousness of the expected offense; the experience of the officer; the risk of escape; and the potential for injury to others. 


Given that Mendoza was restrained when the struggle with officers started, the threat he posed to them and others in the hospital did not merit the degree of force officers used against him. Moreover, as the attorney representing his family argued, the police had no right to use such force to compel Mendoza to receive medical treatment. A precedent for this stance was set when the Supreme Court ruled 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.”


Additional information on this and other legal subjects is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program


If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596. 

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