Supreme Court to Rule on Police Shooting Case: Excessive Force and Qualified Immunity

Imagine waking up to your front door opening and being shot multiple times, then finding out the individuals who shot you are protected by qualified immunity. In October 2010, the Mendezes were taking an afternoon nap when they awoke to the sound of their front door opening, followed by the piercing blasts of fifteen gunshots. Five bullets punctured Mr. Mendez’s body, leading to the amputation of his lower left leg. His pregnant girlfriend, now wife, Jennifer, was shot once and a second bullet grazed her hand. On the other side of those bullets stood two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies. The deputies were on the property aiding in the search of a wanted parolee.

In the darkness of the room, the deputy saw a silhouette of a man with what he believed to be a rifle, and yelled, “gun!” The “rifle” was actually a BB gun used to kill pests. This is not a completely novel occurrence, and such incidents usually result in officers being individually protected from suit by qualified immunity. Yet this case is different because the District Court for the Central District of California and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held the two deputies individually liable under the Ninth Circuit’s “Provocation Rule.” On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, a case that has the potential to provide clarity on the issue of excessive force claims protected by qualified immunity.

“The Provocation Rule establishes that law enforcement officers are entitled to qualified immunity from damages, unless the officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation. If the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation, officers may be held liable for their otherwise defensive use of deadly force.”

Although the home in this case might appear unconventional, it was where the Mendezes lived for ten months. Their home is referred to as a wooden “shack” in briefs, but even so, the Fourth Amendment protects “shacks.” The Mendezes filed suit against the deputies under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by an unreasonable search and seizure. The district court held the deputies’ warrantless entry into the shack was a search within the Fourth Amendment and it was not justified by any exigent circumstances or any exceptions to the warrant requirement. The district court also held that the deputies violated the Fourth Amendment knock-and-announce rule by staying silent when they opened the door.

The district court decided that the deputies’ shooting was not excessive force under Graham v. Connor, however, the court awarded damages under the Ninth Circuit’s Provocation Rule. The Provocation Rule establishes that law enforcement officers are entitled to qualified immunity from damages, unless the officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation. If the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation, officers may be held liable for their otherwise defensive use of deadly force. The district court concluded that the deputies’ shooting the Mendezes was not excessive force because their mistaken fear upon seeing the BB gun and reacting was objectively reasonable. However, the deputies were held individually liable because of the prior Fourth Amendment violation and awarded the Mendezes roughly $4 million in damages for the shooting, nominal damages of $1 each for the unreasonable search and the knock-and-announce violation, and attorneys’ fees.

The Ninth Circuit agreed and held the deputies violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law by entering the wooden shack without a warrant. The deputies argued that the reaction from Mr. Mendez with the BB gun was not a violent confrontation because he was simply moving it, thus the rule did not apply. The Ninth Circuit held the Provocation Rule only required that the deputies’ unconstitutional actions created the situation, which led to the shooting and required the deputies to use force that might have otherwise been reasonable.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and heard oral arguments on two issues, one of those issues was whether the Ninth Circuit’s “Provocation Rule” should be barred because it potentially conflicts with current case law.

In Graham, the Supreme Court held an objectively reasonable standard applies when analyzing the facts and circumstances of excessive force claims such as this. The reasonableness standard is based on the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than applying 20/20 hindsight or looking at any underlying motivation. The Court reasoned that the “reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

In a more recent case, Scott v. Harris, the Supreme Court applied the same objective reasonableness standard, but also looked at the series of events that lead to the force applied by the officer. The Court analyzed the actions of the injured party and held his behavior caused the officer to employ the high level of force, thus the Court found the officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances.

Currently, a circuit split exists regarding the Ninth Circuit’s Provocation Rule. The deputies argue that Graham applies and that officers need to be free to make split-second choices to respond to threats of force without stopping to replay their prior actions and evaluate whether someone might later accuse them of provoking the situation. Although this is true, some argue that officers should also be required to follow the Constitution in the first place and held liable if they cause the force to be used. The holding in Scott supports this type of analysis. While Graham allows for qualified immunity by looking to what an objectively reasonable officer would do in the situation, the Mendezes propose that Scott also be applied for a totality of the circumstances approach.

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The Proposed “Mendez Test”

The Mendezes propose that the Supreme Court not adopt the Ninth Circuit’s Provocation Rule, but instead adopt a new rule regarding excessive force and qualified immunity. The Mendezes propose that when courts are resolving excessive force claims, that “courts may entertain a claim that police action foreseeably created the need for the use of force against a claimant and should apply to the police action the general standard of reasonableness established by Graham and Scott.

“The Mendezes argue that by applying both cases, consideration would also be given to the ‘relative culpability’ of the various actors involved and all issues would be evaluated from the perspective of ‘a reasonable officer on the scene.'”

Under Graham, to decide if the prior police action was reasonable “a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake” is required. The Mendezes argue that by applying both cases, consideration would also be given to the “relative culpability” of the various actors involved and all issues would be evaluated from the perspective of “a reasonable officer on the scene.” The proposed test differs from the Provocation Rule because it requires “objectively unreasonable conduct instead of an independent constitutional violation.”

Here, the lower courts recognized that when the deputies saw the BB gun, their use of force was reasonable and not excessive. However, the deputies being there without a warrant and not announcing their presence was not reasonable. The deputies ultimately caused the situation and its escalation, and they knew they did not have a search warrant. Furthermore, Mr. Mendez would have been justified and not liable for shooting the deputy under California Penal Code § 198.5, a California law that allows an individual to use force to protect his or her own home and which many states also have on their books.

How can both parties shoot one another and not be held liable? This is exactly what the Supreme Court can clear up by applying and implementing the proposed Mendez test. Police should not have to run through a checklist while dealing with an emergency situation, however that is why exceptions to the warrant requirement exist. This law would allow for innocent individuals to seek redress when officers so blatantly violate the Fourth Amendment and it leads to irreparable harm, and would hold officers individually liable for their actions.

The argument against the Provocation Rule is that officers will be held personally liable if they commit even the slightest Fourth Amendment violation and that officers won’t be able to make the quick decisions that are often necessary. Another argument originates from the reason that qualified immunity exists in the first place. Qualified immunity protects government actors from individual liability in lawsuits without having to go through trial. It holds officers accountable when they act irresponsibly, but it also protects officers from lawsuits while acting reasonably. The Provocation Rule is at odds with qualified immunity in this case because here the officers were acting reasonably when they opened fire, however they did not act reasonably when looking at all of the facts in their entirety. The deputies put themselves in the situation, which lead to the unnecessary shooting of two innocent individuals. The deputies caused the shooting by not having a warrant or announcing their presence. This should be taken into consideration and qualified immunity should not protect those who fall into this category.

If the Supreme Court does not adopt the Mendez test, or uphold the Provocation Rule, the deputies in this case and others in the future will not be held individually responsible for their violations of the Fourth Amendment. However, if the Court wants to change the way officers enforce the Constitution, it should adopt the Mendez test to deter police officers from violating the Constitution and hiding behind qualified immunity.

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Police High-Speed Pursuits: Giving Police the Authority to Intervene Before the Public is Harmed

Police Pursuits. The idea brings to mind thoughts of bank robbers fleeing from the police after committing a daring heist, only to be pursued by inept cops that wind up crashing into each other as the robbers drive away in perfect Hollywood fashion. However, police pursuits are rarely as glamorous and thrilling. In reality, they are terrifying and dangerous. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) more than 5,000 bystanders or passengers have been killed in police pursuits since 1979

In recent years there has been a call for police departments to limit their pursuit of fleeing suspects. A simple google search reveals the continuous calls for police to stop pursuing suspects unless they are considered dangerous or committed known violent felonies. For instance, in Jackson, Mississippi, Councilman Kenneth Stokes, in reference to police pursuits coming into his ward, went as far to suggest to the local population “[l]et’s get rocks, let’s get bricks and let’s get bottles and start throwing them and then [police] won’t come in here anymore.” Similarly, in Washington D.C., Charlie Viverette’s mother claimed police should not have been chasing the suspect that hit her son, killing him. Like Charlie Viverette’s mother, many wish to place the blame for such injuries at the feet of the police rather than the fleeing suspect. In those cases, where the police due pursue a suspect and the pursuit ends with the suspect injured or killed, the police not only face criticism from the public, but the department and the individual officers involved become the subject of a civil rights lawsuit.

TRADITIONAL POLICE METHODS USED TO END HIGH SPEED PURSUITS

In attempting to terminate a police pursuit there are a variety of tactics an officer may use. Officers may attempt to “box” a vehicle in by placing cruisers around the suspect’s vehicle and gradually slowing their own speed, forcing the driver to stop. Other methods include using spike stops or the most notable precision immobilization technique, also known as the “PIT maneuver.” During a PIT maneuver, the pursuing officer uses their front push bumper to strike a fleeing vehicles rear quarter panel/bumper of the vehicle, causing the vehicle to spin and end the pursuit. While these are the most common methods, they are not the only methods to end a pursuit.  Each of these methods can involve a high degree of danger for the pursuing officers, the public and the fleeing suspect, as evident by this video, where a fleeing suspect crashes into a police cruiser while trying to avoid spike strips.

CASE LAW PROTECTING POLICE USE OF FORCE DURING HIGH SPEED PURSUITS

The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of use of force in the context of police pursuits only four times. Two of their decisions dealt with vehicles attempting to flee a scene while officers were nearby. The other two, discussed below, addressed the police use of force during the actual high speed pursuit. In each case, the Supreme Court found that either the officer involved did not violate the Fourth Amendment or was entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C section 1983.

The Supreme Court in 2007 first addressed the Fourth Amendment and use of force during a police vehicle pursuit. In Scott v. Harris, an officer was found to not have violated the Fourth Amendment when the officer rammed a fleeing suspect off the road. Harris was rendered a quadriplegic after leading the police on a six-minute chase that ended when Scott used the push bumper of his cruiser to ram Harris’ vehicle, causing it to veer off into a ditch. The Court held that Scott did not violate the Fourth Amendment because Harris was an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, other civilian motorists and the officers involved in the chase.

Harris argued that police should have ceased the pursuit instead of ramming his vehicle, and by ceasing the pursuit the public would have been equally protected. The Court refused to adopt a rule that would give incentives for suspects to escape simply by speeding, running red lights, and endangering the public. Rather, the Court adopted the more sensible rule that “police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

The Supreme Court’s second decision involving police pursuits came just last year in November 2015, with the case of Mullenix v. Luna. On March 23, 2010, Israel Leija Jr., lead police on high speed pursuit. During the 18-minute chase, Leija and the pursuing officers reached speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour. Leija phoned the local police dispatcher while fleeing and told them he had a gun and threatened to shoot at the police if they did not abandon their pursuit. The dispatcher promptly relayed this information to all the officers involved.

While other officers pursued Leija, Trooper Mullenix drove to an overpass intending to set up a spike strip.  Directly below the overpass another officer waited with a spike strip already deployed. Mullenix decided to consider a different tactic, shooting at the vehicle to disable it however, Mullenix was not trained in such a procedure. As Leija’s vehicle approached the overpass, Mullenix fired six shots, striking Leija four times in the upper body. Leija’s vehicle continued under the overpass, struck the spike strips, hit a median, and rolled. Leija was killed in the incident.

Relying on its precedent, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts finding that Mullenix did not have qualified immunity. Instead, the Supreme Court held that Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity because his actions did not violate clearly established precedent beyond debate.

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CONCLUSION

While some continue to call for the police to stop pursuing only the most egregious or dangerous felonies in the name of public safety, perhaps it is more appropriate for departments to authorize officers to end high speed pursuits in an expedited manner. A fleeing suspect in a motor vehicle becomes a high speed missile aimed at the nearest unlucky innocent bystander who’s done nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In contrast, it is the suspect who has made the decision to flee in a motor vehicle, placing the public in danger. Perhaps this is why the Supreme Court has never found an officer’s actions in a high-speed pursuit to be unreasonable. As Justice Scalia in Scott opined,

“we think it appropriate in this process to take into account…their relative culpability. It was [Harris], after all, who intentionally placed himself and the public in danger…”

By adopting a policy that reflects these case precedents, police officers will have the ability, with the constitutional authority, to end high-speed pursuits quickly before the public can be harmed. Rather than chase a suspect’s vehicle for 11-minutes or blame the police, perhaps it is time that society places the blame at the feet of the individual who made the conscious decision to endanger the public. By allowing the police to quickly intervene, this will reduce a suspect’s ability to crash into innocent motorist or pedestrians. In addition, those cases brought by suspects claiming a violation of the Fourth Amendment for a tactic during a high-speed pursuit that resulted in injury or death to the suspect, trial courts should evaluate each case beginning with a rebuttable presumption that a suspect who flees in a motor vehicle poses a danger to the public and officers. With this presumption, it is evident by Supreme Court precedent that when the police use tactics that include the use of deadly force to stop a high-speed pursuit, the actions by the officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable seizures. By adopting a policy that reflects this precedent, perhaps more innocent lives like Charlie Viverette, can be spared and the culpability of a high-speed pursuit can be placed where it rightfully belongs.