County of Los Angeles v. Mendez
581 US ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had information that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While others searched the main house, deputies searched the property. Unbeknownst to the deputies, Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived. Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the shack's door. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. The deputies shot the men multiple times. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the court awarded nominal damages on warrantless entry and knock-and-announce claims. The court found the use of force reasonable, but cited a Ninth Circuit rule, which makes an otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation. The Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim; that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law; and that the provocation rule applied. The Supreme Court vacated. There is a settled, exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment: “whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.” The provocation rule instructs courts to look back to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force, mistakenly and unnecessarily conflating distinct Fourth Amendment claims that should be analyzed separately. If plaintiffs cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, et al. v. MENDEZ et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 16–369. Argued March 22, 2017—Decided May 30, 2017

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 –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 . 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, J., 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.

Primary Holding

Civil rights claims based on excessive force may be considered separately from claims based on a warrantless entry, and the failure of the excessive force claim does not mean that the warrantless entry claim will fail if it is based on a separate Fourth Amendment violation.

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