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U.S. Supreme Court Win by Hurrell Cantrall

October 28, 2017

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 137 S. Ct. 1539 (2017) - In this case, plaintiffs were taking a nap in a shed in which they had resided for 10 months, located in the backyard of a single-family residence.  Two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies were part of a team dispatched to the residence to search for a felony parolee-at-large.  The Deputies were sent to the backyard for containment.  They opened the door to the shed, which appeared uninhabitable, and saw what appeared to be a rifle aimed directly at them.  The Deputies opened fire in self-defense and the plaintiffs sustained non-lethal injuries.

Following a bench trial, the district court ruled in favor of the defendants on plaintiffs’ 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action based upon excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, as the officers reasonably feared for their safety.  However, the district court found the Deputies liable based upon the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation doctrine.”  Under the doctrine, despite the fact that the court (judge or jury) has determined an officer’s use of force was objectively reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment, a police officer is found liable for the plaintiff’s resulting damages if the officer: (1) intentionally or recklessly “provoked a violent response” from the plaintiff, necessitating the use of force; and (2) the conduct was an independent unconstitutional violation (here, the warrantless entry and the “knock and announce” violation) The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision on appeal, and defendants filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, which was granted.

In an 8-0 opinion, reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States Supreme Court held that there is no basis for the “provocation” rule in its excessive force jurisprudence.  “A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use force into an unreasonable seizure.”  The Supreme Court held the “provocation” rule was “incompatible with our excessive force jurisprudence.”  Specifically, the rule improperly uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist.  However, “[i]f there is no excessive force claim under Graham, there is no excessive force claim at all.”  The case was remanded to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Supreme Court Opinion