Government Entities – Case Law Update

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

The United States Supreme Court held this week that the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule is “incompatible with [the Court’s] excessive force jurisprudence.”  The Court noted that the provocation rule’s “fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist.”

In this case, officers received a tip that a wanted parolee, O’Dell, was on a bike outside a residence owned by Paula Hughes.  Officers were told a man (Mendez) and a pregnant woman lived in Hughes’s backyard.  Officers proceeded to the Hughes property to attempt to apprehend O’Dell, who was considered armed and dangerous.  The officers did not have a warrant for their search of the Hughes’ property.

While some officers searched the Hughes’s residence, Officers Pederson and Conley were assigned to clear the backyard.  They encountered a shed surrounded by an A/C unit, electrical cord, clothes locker, etc.  Officer Conley opened the shed’s door and pulled back a blanket used to insulate the shed.  The officers saw a silhouette of an adult male holding what looked like a gun.  They yelled “gun,” and fired fifteen shots, seriously injuring both individuals residing in the shack.  It turned out to be a BB gun that Mendez kept in his bed and used to shoot rats when they entered the shed.  Mendez claimed he was in the process of moving the BB gun so he could sit up in bed.  The couple brought suit under § 1983.

The district court concluded that although the officers’ shooting of the plaintiffs was reasonable under Graham v. Connor, the deputies were nevertheless liable for their use of force under the “provocation” doctrine.  The Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule holds that “an officer’s otherwise reasonable (and lawful) defensive use of force is unreasonable as a matter of law, if (1) the officer intentionally or recklessly provoked a violent response, and (2) that provocation is an independent constitutional violation.”  The district court conclude the officer’s search of the shack was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment because they did not have a warrant to search the shack and because they did not knock and announce themselves.  Therefore, even though the officers’ use of force was reasonable in light of their reasonable belief that a gun was pointing at them, they were nevertheless liable because they “provoked” the violent confrontation with their prior Fourth Amendment violations.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s findings (including that the use of force was reasonable under Graham), but concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock and announce violation.  The Ninth Circuit nevertheless concluded that the officers were still liable for the excessive force claim under basic notions of proximate cause.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the Fourth Amendment provides “no basis” for the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, because a “different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.”  The Court explained that the proper analysis for excessive force claims is set out in Graham and “[i]f there is no excessive force claim under Graham, there is no excessive force claim at all.”  In addition to inappropriately expanding Graham, the Court noted two other distinct problems with the provocation rule.  First, it fails to incorporate a proximate cause standard and second, it looks at the subjective intent of the officers who carried out the seizure even though the reasonableness of a search or seizure should be based on objective factors.

Finally, the Court noted that the Mendez’ damages may not be totally foreclosed because they can recover for injuries that were proximately caused by the warrantless entry.  On this point, the Court noted that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis on proximate cause was “tainted by the same errors” as its provocation rule analysis.  This is because the Ninth Circuit concluded that violence was a foreseeable result/the proximate cause of the officers making a “startling entry” and “barging into a home unannounced.”  Such a conclusion, the Supreme Court noted, was based on the foreseeability associated with the failure to knock and announce, but since the Ninth Circuit also concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity for their failure to knock and announce, that failure could not serve as the basis for liability.  Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded for the Ninth Circuit to determine whether the injuries were proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

State v. Martinez

The Utah Supreme Court reversed the district court’s order granting Defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained after a law enforcement officer stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation and searched Defendant, a passenger, incident to his arrest on an outstanding arrest warrant. The district court had concluded that the trooper had violated Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights when he asked to see Defendant’s identification and ran a warrants check without reasonable suspicion that Defendant had committed or was about to commit a crime. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the officer’s seconds-long extension of the lawful traffic stop to request Defendant’s identification did not unreasonably prolong the detention and that officer safety concerns justified the “negligibly burdensome extension of the traffic stop[.]”  In reaching its ruling, the court joined “the multitude of other courts that have held that, to promote officer safety, the Fourth Amendment does not prevent an officer from asking a passenger to produce identification and running a warrants check as long as that does not unreasonably prolong the duration of the stop.”

These summaries are for informational purposes only.  Neither Snow Christensen & Martineau, nor Heather White, represented any of the parties involved.