The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a legal rule that gave victims of police brutality in one part of the country a better chance of holding officers accountable in court over civil rights violations.
Known as the “provocation rule,” it was confined to the nine states covered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which last year upheld a $4 million verdict against a pair of Los Angeles officers who broke into the shack of a homeless couple without a warrant and nearly killed them.
The appeals court in the case agreed with a lower court that found the two sheriff deputies “provoked” one of the victims, Angel Mendez, who was startled by the officers’ sudden entry. Mendez reached for the BB rifle he kept by his bedside to ward off intruders, but the officers pulled the triggers of their own guns first — firing fifteen rounds at Mendez and his then-girlfriend, Jennifer, who was pregnant at the time.
Both survived to tell the tale of the 2010 confrontation and later sued in federal court, which conducted a trial that concluded the two officers violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights by barging into their residence.
That court and the 9th Circuit agreed that the shooting itself was “reasonable” under the leading Supreme Court precedent for excessive force cases, Graham v. Connor, which largely shields the police from liability. But because of the ruling that the officers unlawfully entered the shack in the first place, that independent provocation allowed the victims to recover for the near-fatal chain of events that followed.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court rejected the provocation doctrine as “incompatible with our excessive force jurisprudence,” including the Graham case, which for decades has set a high bar for holding law officers civilly liable in court.
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,” wrote Alito. He added that the rule “permits excessive force claims that cannot succeed on their own terms.”
Alito disputed the lower courts’ conclusion that the deputies’ failure to obtain a warrant and their later intrusion into the Mendezes’ home without announcing themselves “in some sense set the table” for the confrontation that almost killed them. (Angel Mendez’s right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of the incident.)
“That is wrong,” Alito wrote in the 11-page decision, which was joined by every member of the court except Neil Gorsuch, who didn’t participate in the case because he wasn’t yet a justice when his colleagues heard it in March. “The framework for analyzing excessive force claims is set out in Graham. If there is no excessive force claim under Graham, there is no excessive force claim at all.”
Despite Alito’s tone — and the nixing of the provocation rule — the language of the ruling is modest and left the door open for the 9th Circuit to reassess the facts of the case under a theory of “proximate cause.” Under that analysis, the victims might be able to win if they can prove their injuries were the foreseeable result of the officers’ warrantless entry and the shooting that ensued.
For the Mendezes, who are now married, the ruling will mean more litigation and delays before they might obtain relief. But their lawyer, Leonard Feldman, is hopeful the case remains winnable.
“We are of course disappointed that the Supreme Court did not uphold the Ninth Circuit’s ruling,” Feldman said in an email, “but the court left open significant issues and we are optimistic that the Ninth Circuit will rule that the defendants are liable to the Mendezes again.”
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