By David G. Savage
The Supreme Court made it harder to sue police for barging into a home and provoking a shooting, setting aside a $4 million verdict against two Los Angeles County deputies on Tuesday.
The unanimous ruling rejected the so-called provocation rule that some lower courts have used. Under that rule, police can be sued for violating a victim's constitutional rights against unreasonable searches if they provoked a confrontation that resulted in violence.
"The basic problem with the provocation rule," Justice Samuel A. Alito, wrote in the 8-0 decision, is that it "provides a novel and unsupported path to liability in cases in which the use of force was reasonable."
The police cannot be held liable for injuries they caused as part of a search unless the search itself is "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment, Alito wrote.
The case decided Tuesday began in 2010 when Los Angeles County deputies were searching for a parole violator who was believed to be armed and dangerous. Based on a tip, they went to a house in Lancaster. Several deputies entered the house without a search warrant, and two others went around to the back where they saw three metal storage sheds and a wooden shack.
When they opened the door of the shack and pulled back a blue blanket, they startled a man and a woman who were napping. When the man reached for a BB gun, one deputy yelled "Gun!" and the two officers fired 15 shots.
Angel Mendez was hit several times and lost his leg. His wife, Jennifer Garcia Mendez, who was pregnant, was also hit several times. The deputies did not find the fugitive they were looking for.
Both shooting victims survived and sued Los Angeles County for their injuries.
A federal judge in Los Angeles handed down a $4 million verdict against the two deputies because they entered the shack without a search warrant, did not announce their presence and used excessive force. The judge reasoned that while the deputies had reason to shoot when they saw Mendez reach for his BB gun, they had provoked the confrontation in the first place.
The 9th Circuit Court agreed on the theory that the officers had recklessly and intentionally provoked the confrontation.
Last year, lawyers for Los Angeles County appealed and argued that the 9th Circuit was the only appeals court to use the provocation rule as a separate basis for upholding excessive force claims against the police.
Tuesday's opinion in County of Los Angeles vs. Mendez rejected the approach used by the 9th Circuit, but left open the possibility that the verdict in favor of Mendez and Garcia could be upheld.
Judges must decide whether the deputies engaged in an "unreasonable search" when they entered the shack behind the house, Alito wrote.
"When an officer carries out a seizure that is reasonable, taking into account all relevant circumstances, there is no valid excessive force claim," he wrote.
The justices sent the case back to the 9th Circuit to determine whether the verdict can be upheld because of "the deputies' failure to secure a warrant at the outset."
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