Supreme Court Preview: County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

This month, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case that raises the question of whether a police shooting in which the police acted reasonably can nevertheless violate the Fourth Amendment if the officers engaged in behavior that the Court of Appeals described as “provoking” the subsequent shooting.

In County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, two Sheriff’s deputies looking for a parolee opened the door of an occupied shack in the backyard of a home without a warrant and without first knocking or announcing.  When Angel Mendez, who lived in the shack, moved a BB gun to respond, the deputies shot him and his pregnant wife.  The couple sued, alleging that the deputies deprived them of their Fourth Amendment rights by performing an unjustified warrantless search.  They also alleged that the deputies failed to adhere to the knock-and-notice rule, which requires that officers announce their presence before they enter a dwelling.

Following a bench trial, the District Court ruled that although the officers’ use of force was reasonable under the circumstances, they were liable for the shooting under the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule. The provocation rule holds an officer liable for use of deadly force where the officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation via a Fourth Amendment violation.  Here, the Court found that the provocation rule applied because the deputies did not have a search warrant and failed to “knock and announce” before entering into the shack.  The Court awarded the Mendezes $4 million plus attorney fees.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s determination that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.  The appellate court also held that the officers were liable under the provocation rule because their unjustified search of the occupied shack is what led to the shooting.

This case is significant because the Supreme Court will determine whether the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule should be barred because it conflicts with Graham v. Connor.  In Graham, the Supreme Court held that a law enforcement officer’s use of force was to be measured by the reasonableness of the action at the moment the force was used, such as whether or not a gun is pointed at the officer.  It does not factor in actions prior to the use of force.

No other federal circuit has adopted the provocation rule, and it has been widely criticized by many courts and law enforcement entities who assert that it puts officers at risk because officers will second guess whether they can use force.  This may put officers in danger if they end up in a life-threatening situation.

We will keep you updated as to the Supreme Court’s ruling in this important case.

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