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County of Los Angeles, California v. Mendez
United States Supreme Court
May 30, 2017
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, ET AL.
MENDEZ ET AL.
March 22, 2017
TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
The Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department received word from
a confidential informant that a potentially armed and
dangerous parol-ee-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.
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
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.
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.
enforcement officers make a "seizure" of a person
using force that is judged to be reasonable based on a
consideration of the circumstances relevant to that
determination, may the officers nevertheless be held liable
for injuries caused by the seizure on the ground that they
committed a separate Fourth Amendment violation that
contributed to their need to use force? The Ninth ...
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