Police Officer Liability for Reasonable Force?

It is undisputed that police officers used reasonable force when they shot Angel Mendez. As officers entered, unannounced, the shack where Mendez was living they saw a silhouette of Mendez pointing what looked like a rifle at them. Yet, the Ninth Circuit awarded him and his wife damages because the officers didn’t have a warrant to search the shack thereby “provoking” Mendez.

(Mendez kept a BB gun in his bed to shot rats when they entered the shack. Mendez claimed that when the officers entered the shack he was in the process of moving the BB gun so he could sit up in bed.)

Los Angeles County v. Mendez the Supreme Court must decide whether to accept or reject the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation” rule. Per this rule, “Where an officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation, if the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation, he may be held liable for his otherwise defensive use of deadly force.”

In Sheehan v. City and County of San Francisco (2015) the Supreme Court noted that the Ninth Circuit’s rule has been “sharply questioned” by other courts of appeals. According to Los Angeles County, other circuit courts have concluded that “force must be measured at the time it is applied and not based upon pre-seizure conduct.”

In Graham v. Connor (1989) the Supreme Court articulated a non-exhaustive list of factors to consider in determining reasonableness in an excessive force claim. Los Angeles County argues the provocation rule conflicts with Graham by subjecting a police officer to liability for a use of force that was reasonable at the moment it occurred.

The Mendezes also argue that putting the provocation theory aside, the officers are liable in this case because their unconstitutional entry “proximate caused” them to shoot Mendez. Many Americans own guns. So, it is reasonably foreseeable that if officers barge into a shack unannounced the person in the shack may be holding a gun.

Los Angeles County argues that when an incident giving rise to a reasonable use of force is an intervening, superseding event (here Mendez pointing a gun at the officers) that event breaks the chain of causation started by an unlawful entry, meaning the officers’ unlawful entry didn’t “proximately cause” the shooting.