Supreme Court Vacates $4,000,000 Verdict Against Police and Reaffirms Graham v. Connor’s “Objective Reasonableness” Test for Excessive Force Claims

June 7, 2017

On May 30, 2017, in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez,  the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a $4,000,000 award in an excessive force case. In Mendez, the police entered a house looking for an armed and dangerous criminal suspect. The suspect was not found, but the owner of the house said that a homeless couple was living in a shack in the backyard. The police entered the shed without a warrant or knocking and announcing. An officer saw the silhouette of a man holding a gun behind a blanket hanging in the doorway (it turned out to be a BB gun). The man was pointing the gun somewhat in the officers’ direction, and the police opened fire, striking and injuring the man and his wife. The couple sued the police under three theories: entering without a warrant, failure to knock and announce, and excessive force. The trial court found against the officers on the illegal entry claims but awarded nominal damages for these violations because the Mendez’s act of pointing the gun at the officers was a superseding cause of the shooting and their resultant injuries. The court also found that the use of force was reasonable given the officers’ belief that Mendez was pointing a gun and threatening their lives. However, the court did not end the case there and instead applied the Ninth Circuit’s so-called “provocation rule,” meaning that police had provoked the confrontation through their illegal entry into the home and held the officers liable for $4,000,000 in damages.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock and announce claim because the law was not clearly established that the police had to knock and announce before entering a secondary structure on the property. However, the Ninth Circuit upheld the illegality of the warrantless entry and also the $4,000,000 verdict under the “provocation rule.” The Ninth Circuit also upheld the verdict based on basic notions of proximate cause, i.e., that the police were liable because it was reasonably foreseeable that officers would meet an armed homeowner when they barge into a home unannounced.

The Supreme Court reversed and rejected the provocation rule, stating that it “is incompatible with our excessive force jurisprudence. The rule’s fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist.” The Court reaffirmed the venerable “objective reasonableness” test for excessive force claims under Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). In other words, once the lower courts determined that the shooting was objectively reasonable, based on the perspective of the officer and totality of the circumstances at the moment of the shooting, the case ends and there is no valid excessive force claim. Providing a “path to liability” by looking back at a different constitutional violation (i.e., failing to knock and announce) and conflating it with an otherwise reasonable use of force, was novel and unsupported by Graham.  The Court succinctly held that: “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.” The Court did not address the proximate cause issue based on the warrantless entry, however, and remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit to determine if the plaintiffs could recover damages for the shooting based on the officers’ failure to secure a warrant.

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

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