Unanimous SCOTUS Overturns Police-Limiting ‘Provocation Rule’

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building / Reuters

The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously overturned a lower court's controversial "provocation rule," which allowed police officers to be held liable for the use of otherwise reasonable force if they separately committed an otherwise unconstitutional offense.

The case Los Angeles v. Mendez was concerning an altercation in Lancaster, Calif. in October of 2010. Los Angeles County law enforcement received a tip about an at-large parolee, believed to be armed and dangerous, who was seen at a home in Lancaster. Several officers discovered a shack in the back of the home where Angel Mendez and his partner were sleeping.

The officers entered without a warrant and without knocking. Mendez responded to the sudden entrance by pulling out what appeared to be a gun, but was later established to be a BB gun. One of the officers shouted "gun!" before he and his fellow officers opened fire, severely injuring both Mendez and his partner.

The lower court found in Mendez's subsequent suit that the officers had violated the 4th Amendment in their search. The court applied the controversial "provocation rule" to argue that, because the officers had committed an unconstitutional offense, they could be held liable for what had otherwise been deemed a reasonable use of force. The lower court declared the officers "provoked" the incident by "intentionally and recklessly… entering the shack without a warrant in violation of clearly established law."

The lower court that established the provocation rule, California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, has a reputation for liberal-friendly rulings. President Donald Trump in April attracted surprise and criticism for saying that he would "absolutely" look towards breaking the circuit up.

But the Supreme Court was undivided by political persuasion, ruling 8-0 that the provocation rule was not in line with the law. Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Samuel Alito established that, "The provocation rule, which has been ‘sharply questioned' outside the Ninth Circuit, is incompatible with our excessive force jurisprudence."

"The rule’s fundamental flaw," the opinion continued, "is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist."

The Court further established that the provocation rule contravened Graham v. United States, which set forth "a settled and exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment."

The Court's ruling generated some critical response. Cristian Farias, a Supreme Court and legal issues correspodent for HuffPost, said that the Court had "kill[ed] the civil rights-friendly ‘provocation rule,' which gave plaintiffs a tool to fight police brutality."

https://twitter.com/cristianafarias/status/869555473065943041

Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case, as arguments for it were heard before his confirmation.