Supreme Court overturns Ninth Circuit ‘provocation rule’


[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-0 to strike down [transcript, PDF] the “provocation rule” created by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] which allows law enforcement officers to be held liable for an otherwise defensive use of deadly force if the officer provoked the violent encounter. Justice Samuel Alito [official profile], in writing for the court, stated that officers cannot be held liable for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment [text] because “a different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.” The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Justice Alito wrote that the issue with the provocation rule is that

it instructs courts to look back in time to see if there was a different Fourth Amendment violation that is somehow tied to the eventual use of force. That distinct violation, rather than the forceful seizure itself, may then serve as the foundation of the plaintiff’s excessive force claim. … [T]his approach mistakenly conflates distinct Fourth Amendment claims. Contrary to this approach, the objective reasonableness analysis must be conducted separately for each search or seizure that is alleged to be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] in March. The court was asked to rule on a Fourth Amendment civil rights action filed by two victims of a police shooting. Two Los Angeles County sheriffs entered Angel Mendez’s home without a warrant, found by [opinion, PDF] the trial court and Ninth Circuit to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Finding for Mendez and his girlfriend, both of whom were shot after Mendez reached for a BB gun, lower courts applied the provocation doctrine, holding that despite the reasonableness of the sheriffs’ reaction, the officers had created the situation which caused the injury by failing to obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the provocation theory applies, as it allegedly conflicts with the court’s ruling in Graham v. Connor [opinion], and whether an incident giving rise to a reasonable use of force breaks the chain of causation.

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