U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

High Court Tosses Ninth Circuit's 'Provocation Rule' in Excessive Force Cases

In what the U.S. Supreme Court called a 'fundamental flaw' in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the high court said the 'provocation rule' cannot be used to hold police liable for excessive force.

Reversing the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the unanimous court said that the circuit's "provocation rule" was a "novel and unsupported path to liability." When police had not used excessive force, the rule allowed courts to hold them liable anyway if they provoked victims to act in ways that brought a forceful response.

"The rule's fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist," Justice Samuel Alioto wrote for the court in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez.

Shooting Victims

The case stemmed from an officer-involved shooting in Los Angeles County in 2010. Deputies were looking for a wanted parolee when they happened upon two other people living in shack.

Angel Mendez and Jennifer Garcia were inside the structure when the police knocked and entered without a warrant. Mendez was holding a BB gun, and the officers responded by shooting them.

The couple sued and were awarded $4 million, but the county appealed. The Ninth Circuit, which had crafted the "no provocation rule," affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, saying the plaintiffs still had a claim but not under the provocation rule.

Fourth Amendment

Alito, writing for a unanimous court, said the provocation rule distorted excessive force jurisprudence. When police violate the Fourth Amendment, courts should use a proximate cause analysis to hold them responsible.

"However, there is no need to distort the excessive force inquiry in order to accomplish this objective," Alito said. "To the contrary, both parties accept the principle that plaintiffs can--subject to qualified immunity -- generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation."

The court said the plaintiffs in the case cannot recover on their excessive force claim, but they may be able to obtain damages for injuries caused by the warrantless entry. The issue should be address on remand, the court said.

For the latest Supreme Court news, subscribe to FindLaw's SCOTUS Newsletter.

Related Resources: