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At Supreme Court, Search For Police Accountability Continues

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Angel Mendez and his girlfriend cannot sue the officers who riddled their bodies with bullets, and vacated a $4 million reward Mendez recovered from a lower court.

The precipitating incident occurred in Oct. 2010, when deputies were searching for a missing parolee in Lancaster, Calif. Acting on a tip, officers surrounded the home of Paula Hughes, and a shack in Hughes’ backyard, occupied by Mendez and his pregnant girlfriend. Two deputies entered the shack, where Mendez and his girlfriend were napping. As he awoke, Mendez grabbed his BB gun, which officers say resembled a small-bore rifle. Seeing the gun, the officer discharged their weapons, firing 15 rounds which gravely wounded Mendez and his girlfriend. Both survived, although Mendez’s leg was amputated below the knee.

Generally, police officers enjoy immunity from lawsuits when they are acting in their official capacities as cops. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, using its so-called provocation rule, allowed Mendez to recover damages from Los Angeles Country because of the officer’s actions.

The 9th Circuit’s provocation rule operates as follows: if a police officer lawfully seizes an individual, but commits some action separate from that seizure that is unconstitutional and precipitates violence, then the officer no longer enjoys immunity. In this instance, the officers that entered Mendez’s shack entered without a warrant and failed to announce their presence. The lower court, using the rule, found that the officer’s warrantless entry and failure to “knock and announce” created the circumstances that resulted in the shooting.

A unanimous Supreme Court disagreed, however, and announced the end of the 9th Circuit’s broad theory of provocation. Writing for the Court, Justice Samuel Alito explained that the rule essentially blurred the important distinction between an excessive force claim and other Fourth Amendment claims. Though the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment, the use of force against Mendez was lawful because the officers had legitimate reason to believe he was holding a deadly weapon.

These two instances, the Court stressed, cannot be conflated, nor is it clear that initial entry foreseeably resulted in the subsequent shooting.

“A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.” Alito wrote.

“The rule’s fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist,” he added.

The case will now return to the 9th Circuit for further proceedings.

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