High Court Denies Police Liability in Use-of-Force Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously struck down a “provocation rule” of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which said that police officers may be held liable when they seize someone using reasonable force after committing a separate Fourth Amendment violation that contributed to the need to use force.

“We hold that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis for such a rule,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito. “A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.” It was an 8-0 opinion, with new Justice Neil Gorsuch not taking part.

The case arose in a Los Angeles suburb in 2010 when sheriffs’ deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson were dispatched to a home to help track down a fugitive. They were told to search the back yard where officers suspected the missing parolee might be hiding. The deputies saw the silhouette of a man who appeared to be pointing a rifle at them, and fired at a the windowless shack. The man inside was not a fugitive, but Angel Mendez, who was living with his pregnant girlfriend, Jennifer Lynn Garcia.

Their bullets hit Mendez in several spots and required the amputation of a portion of his right leg. The 9th Circuit ruled that the entry without a warrant violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The ruling upheld $4 million in damages. Today’s decision overturned the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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