Four Thoughts on County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

Last month, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, overturning the Ninth Circuit’s decision.  As noted in our earlier preview of the pending case, the primary issue before the Supreme Court was whether a law enforcement officer could be held liable for a Fourth Amendment violation when he provoked a violent encounter that led to an officer-involved shooting, even when the officer’s decision to use force was reasonable.

Here are the four key takeaways from the Supreme Court’s ruling, which rejected the provocation rule and remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for a determination of whether the plaintiffs can prevail on an alternative theory.

  • Let’s start with the obvious one first. If you have a pending case in which the now-rejected provocation rule has been used against you at trial or in denying a motion for summary judgment, you now have a chance to undo the adverse jury verdict or Court ruling, assuming the time periods for challenging the decision have not expired.
  • Although the provocation rule is gone, the Supreme Court conceded that a pre-shooting Constitutional violation, such as an officer’s warrantless entry into a residence, can be the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s damages resulting from an officer-involved shooting, even when the shooting itself was reasonable. Although the Supreme Court repeatedly emphasized that a Section 1983 claim addressing an alleged warrantless entry and a Section 1983 claim addressing a subsequent shooting should be thought of as two separate claims, the distinction is largely academic.  As a result, an officer’s pre-shooting conduct may still be relevant to a Section 1983 claim.
  • As noted in the April 2017 Burke Beat, California law allows a jury to consider an officer’s pre-shooting conduct in determining whether a shooting itself was reasonable for the purposes of a civil negligence claim. Hayes v. County of San Diego, 57 Cal.4th 622 (2013).  The Supreme Court opinion eliminating the provocation rule in Section 1983 litigation does nothing to change the law in California state courts.  As a result of these differing standards, state law negligence claims will take on an outsized role in officer-involved shooting cases where the plaintiff’s best arguments concern an officer’s pre-shooting conduct.
  • Should your agency change its use-of-force policy as a result of the Supreme Court ruling? The short answer is No.  Officers are still limited to using only force that is reasonable, and despite the elimination of the provocation rule, an officer’s pre-shooting negligence can still form the basis for liability under California law.

What are your thoughts on the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling?

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