The Supreme Court on Tuesday 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.
The money was awarded to a homeless couple who were startled and then shot when the two sheriff's deputies entered the shack where they were sleeping.
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 Jr., 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."
A federal judge decided the two deputies responded reasonably when they saw Angel Mendez, the sleeping man, reach for a weapon, which turned out to be a BB gun.
The deputies were liable for the injuries they caused, the judge ruled, because they had provoked the incident by going on to private property and barging into the shack without a search warrant and without announcing their presence.
In Tuesday's opinion in County of Los Angeles vs. Mendez, the justices said the judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals were wrong to rely on the provocation rule. But they sent the case back to the 9th Circuit to reconsider whether the verdict can be upheld on the grounds the deputies violated the 4th Amendment when they searched without a warrant.
The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs welcomed the court's rejection of the provocation rule.
"This invented rule put the lives of deputies into danger by causing them to hesitate in using reasonable force to defend themselves for fear of later civil liability," the group said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union had urged the court to uphold the verdict. But David Cole, the ACLU's national legal director, said the court's opinion makes clear officers can be held liable in such cases.
"In my view, the decision does not give police a blank check to provoke violence. It holds that where the police act unconstitutionally, they are responsible for the reasonable consequences of their conduct," Cole said.
The case began in 2010 when deputies were searching for a parole violator who was believed to be armed and dangerous. Based on a tip, a dozen deputies went to a house in Lancaster. They did not have a search warrant. Several deputies banged on the front door and pressed to enter, and two others went around to the back where they saw three metal storage sheds and a wooden shack.
When one of them opened the door of the shack and pulled back a blue blanket, he 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.
Mendez was hit several times and lost his leg. His wife, Jennifer Garcia Mendez, who was pregnant, was hit in the back. The deputies did not find the fugitive they were looking for.
Both shooting victims survived and sued Los Angeles County for their injuries.
After a trial, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald handed down the $4-million verdict.
The 9th Circuit Court upheld the decision and agreed 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.
The eight justices heard arguments in the case in late March while Justice Neil M. Gorsuch's confirmation was pending in the Senate, and they sounded evenly split. Tuesday's opinion looks to be a compromise of sorts that rejects one approach but leaves open the prospect that victims of police shootings may recover damages if the officers undertook an unreasonable search.
1:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional facts about the case and reaction.