SCOTUS: Co. of LA v. Mendez: No constitutional basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation” rule that an officer’s conduct that provokes a violent response is a separate Fourth Amendment claim

There is no constitutional basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation” rule that an officer’s conduct that provokes a violent response is a separate Fourth Amendment claim. County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 3396 (U.S. May 30, 2017). Syllabus:

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received word from a confidential informant that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While other officers searched the main house, Deputies Conley and Pederson searched the back of the property where, unbeknownst to the deputies, respondents Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived. Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the door of the shack. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. Deputy Conley yelled, “Gun!” and the deputies immediately opened fire, shooting Mendez and Garcia multiple times. Officers did not find the parolee in the shack or elsewhere on the property.

Mendez and Garcia sued Deputies Conley and Pederson and the County under 42 U.S.C. §1983, pressing three Fourth Amendment claims: a warrantless entry claim, a knock-and-announce claim, and an excessive force claim. On the first two claims, the District Court awarded Mendez and Garcia nominal damages. On the excessive force claim, the court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable under Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, but held them liable nonetheless under the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, which makes an officer’s otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if (1) the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and (2) “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation,” Billington v. Smith, 292 F.3d 1177, 1189. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim and that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law. It also affirmed the District Court’s application of the provocation rule, and held, in the alternative, that basic notions of proximate cause would support liability even without the provocation rule.

Held: The Fourth Amendment provides no basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule.” Pp. 5-10.

(a) The provocation rule is incompatible with this Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, which sets forth a settled and exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment. See Graham, supra, at 395. The operative question in such cases is “whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.” Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8-9. When an officer carries out a seizure that is reasonable, taking into account all relevant circumstances, there is no valid excessive force claim. The provocation rule, however, instructs courts to look back in time to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force, an approach that mistakenly conflates distinct Fourth Amendment claims. The proper framework is set out in Graham. To the extent that a plaintiff has other Fourth Amendment claims, they should be analyzed separately.

The Ninth Circuit attempts to cabin the provocation rule by defining a two-prong test: First, the separate constitutional violation must “creat[e] a situation which led to” the use of force; and second, the separate constitutional violation must be committed recklessly or intentionally. 815 F.3d 1178, 1193. Neither limitation, however, solves the fundamental problem: namely, that the provocation rule is an unwarranted and illogical expansion of Graham. In addition, each limitation creates problems of its own. First, the rule relies on a vague causal standard. Second, while the reasonableness of a search or seizure is almost always based on objective factors, the provocation rule looks to the subjective intent of the officers who carried out the seizure.

There is no need to distort the excessive force inquiry in this way in order to hold law enforcement officers liable for the foreseeable consequences of all their constitutional torts. Plaintiffs can, subject to qualified immunity, generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation. See, e.g., Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 483. Here, if respondents cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry. Pp. 5-10.

(b) The Ninth Circuit’s proximate-cause holding is similarly tainted. Its analysis appears to focus solely on the risks foreseeably associated with the failure to knock and announce—the claim on which the court concluded that the deputies had qualified immunity—rather than the warrantless entry. On remand, the court should revisit the question whether proximate cause permits respondents to recover damages for their injuries based on the deputies’ failure to secure a warrant at the outset. Pp. 10-11.

815 F.3d 1178, vacated and remanded.

Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Gorsuch, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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