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Police may not have to pay $4 million to a homeless couple they shot while searching their California shack, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled May 30 ( Los Angeles Cty. v. Mendez , 2017 BL 179656, U.S., No. 16–369, 5/30/17 ).
The court overruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s application of a legal theory called the provocation rule. The Ninth Circuit’s use of the doctrine opened law enforcement to personal liability when it engaged in unconstitutional conduct that elicited a violent reaction from the victim.
The Ninth Circuit held that the failure to obtain a search warrant was sufficient provocation to expose police to liability because they violated the constitutional rights of the couple living in the shack. This stance made it an outlier among the federal circuits.
The court more articulately defined how tort principles regarding legal cause and effect factor into analyzing claims regarding unreasonable searches and seizures by police, said Bennett Gershman, a criminal procedure professor at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law, White Plains, New York.
The decision wasn’t a surprise, but offered increased clarity on how courts should analyze Fourth Amendment claims involving police misconduct, Gershman said.
Additionally, the way the court presented its reasoning seems to suggest that the Ninth Circuit could still find in favor of the couple under the proper analysis, he said.
The Ninth Circuit recognized that no excessive force claim existed because the officers’ decision to shoot was reasonable when they faced what they thought was the end of a rifle.
But the Ninth Circuit used the provocation rule to say the Fourth Amendment violation—entering a home without a warrant—allowed for an excessive force claim.
But that use of the provocation rule created an “unwarranted and illogical expansion” of the Supreme Court’s precedent regarding excessive force claims, Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote for the unanimous court.
“[T]he Fourth Amendment provides no basis” for the provocation rule, Alito wrote. “A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.”
Yet just because plaintiffs don’t have viable excessive force claims, doesn’t foreclose a possible finding of liability.
“[B]oth parties accept the principle that plaintiffs can—subject to qualified immunity—generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation,” Alito wrote. “Thus, there is no need to dress up every Fourth Amendment claim as an excessive force claim.”
Essentially, the court told the Ninth Circuit: “You don’t even need the provocation rule,” Gershman said.
Although the court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit, the couple could still wind up with a win, said Gershman. That was evident in how the court presented its reasoning, he explained.
Both the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court seemed to agree that failing to obtain a warrant before searching the shack that led to the shooting likely amounted to a Fourth Amendment violation.
“Even if the warrantless search was reasonable and lawful, it could still cause liability which could very well have been the proximate cause” of the plaintiffs’ injuries, Gershman said. “I think the court suggested that on remand they could find this type of alternative theory of liability, but that they have to do it in a responsible way.”
However, the plaintiffs still face difficult obstacles to reach that ruling, said Steven Schwinn, a constitutional law professor at John Marshall Law School, Chicago.
Schwinn highlighted two hurdles blocking a potential plaintiff payoff.
First, Schwinn noted that the plaintiffs may have difficulty showing that the failure to obtain a warrant was the proximate cause of their injuries. The county argued that a warrantless search couldn’t have caused the injuries because the purpose of a warrant is usually not to avoid physical injury.
Additionally, the county could argue that encountering the barrel of a gun acted as an intervening cause, which would break any chain of causation between the warrantless search and the injuries, he explained.
“It’s not a crazy argument,” Schwinn said.
Finally, he said even if the plaintiffs win, it might not be enough to warrant significant damages, but could merely result in a moral victory.
“These are pretty significant barriers,” Schwinn said.
The court’s failure to issue an outright suggestion on how to apply its analysis when issuing a remand makes it unclear how they think the Ninth Circuit should rule, Schwinn said.
“Whether the court is trying to send a signal to the Ninth Circuit, I don’t know, but it is a fairly direct remand saying this case isn’t over.”
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