Civil Rights: County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

Preview Issue 6 Vol. 44

By Steven D. Schwinn

Published March 2017

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Can Police Officers Be Held Liable Under the Fourth Amendment for Shooting Residents in Their Home, Where the Officers Entered the Home Unlawfully, but Where They Believed That One of the Residents Pointed a Rifle at Them?


CASE AT A GLANCE

Deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson entered the Mendez residence (situated in the back portion of another person’s property) without a warrant and without first knocking and announcing their presence. Upon entering the residence, the deputies thought they saw Mr. Mendez pointing a rifle at them. (In fact, Mr. Mendez was moving a BB gun as he got out of bed.) The deputies opened fire and seriously injured the Mendezes.


Introduction

A police officer violates the Fourth Amendment if, judged at the time, he or she uses force that is objectively unreasonable under the facts and circumstances of the case. Notwithstanding this rule, under the law of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, an officer is also liable if he or she provoked a confrontation that led to his or her use of force. Finally, an officer is liable if his or her constitutional violation (here, the unlawful entry into the Mendez residence) proximately caused an injury.


ISSUES

Should the Court overturn the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule?

Did the deputies’ failure to secure a warrant proximately cause the shooting, where the deputies believed that Mr. Mendez was pointing a rifle at them after they entered the residence but before they shot the Mendezes?


FACTS

In October 2010, County of Los Angeles Deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson were part of a team of 12 police officers dispatched to locate a wanted parolee named Ronnie O’Dell. O’Dell was classified as armed and dangerous, although that classification was standard for all parolees who were at large. Conley and Pederson knew nothing else about O’Dell.

O’Dell was seen entering a local grocery store, so the team started the search there, but to no avail: the officers did not fi nd O’Dell. After searching the grocery store, one officer received a tip that a man fitting O’Dell’s description was riding a bicycle in front of a home owned by a woman named Paula Hughes. Part of the team went to the Hughes home, and part of the team dispatched to a different home on the same street (on the theory that O’Dell might have already left the Hughes residence).

Conley and Pederson joined three other officers at the Hughes home. They were assigned to cover the rear of the property, in order to protect other officers’ safety and to ensure against O’Dell’s escape. They were told that “a male named Angel (Mendez) lived in the backyard of the Hughes residence with a pregnant lady (Mrs. Mendez).” (Pederson heard that announcement, but Conley testified that he did not recall it.) However, none of the officers had a warrant to enter Hughes’s property.

The other officers, led by Sergeant Gregory Minster, banged on the security screen outside Hughes’s front door. They asked Hughes to open the door, but she refused. Minster heard someone running inside the home, and assumed it was O’Dell. The officers retrieved a pick and ram to break open Hughes’s door, but Hughes then opened the door. The officers pushed Hughes to the ground, handcuffed her, and placed her in the backseat of a patrol car. They did not find anyone else in the house.

Pederson told Minster that she was going to clear the backyard, and Minster approved. Conley and Pederson approached a 7' x 7' x 7' shack made of wood and plywood, surrounded by an air conditioning unit, an electrical cord, a water hose, a clothes locker, and clothes and other belongings. (There’s a picture of the structure on page 7 of the petitioners’ merits brief.) Conley and Pederson did not knock and announce their presence at the structure, and Conley “did not feel threatened.” Conley opened a wooden door and pulled back a blue blanket used as a curtain behind the door. The deputies saw the silhouette of a man holding a rifle pointed at them. Conley shouted “Gun!,” and the deputies fired 15 shots into the shack. Other officers ran back toward the structure, and one officer shot and killed a dog.

In fact, the man, Mr. Mendez, was not pointing a rifle at the officers. He was moving a BB gun, which he kept by his bed to shoot rats that entered the shack, in order to sit up in bed. (Testimony conflicted at trial as to whether Mr. Mendez was pointing the BB gun at the deputies, and the trial court recognized that Mr. Mendez may not have intended to point the gun at them.)

The deputies’ shots seriously injured both Mendezes. Mr. Mendez required amputation of his right leg below the knee, and Mrs. Mendez was shot in the back.

The Mendezes sued Conley and Pederson in federal court for violating their Fourth Amendment rights against an unlawful search of their dwelling and an unlawful seizure. (The courts treat an excessive-force claim based on a police shooting as a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.) The trial court ruled for the Mendezes and awarded about $4 million in damages for the shooting, nominal damages of $1 each for the unreasonable search and a violation of the knock-and-announce rule, and attorneys’ fees. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling and damages for the shooting, but reversed the ruling and damages for the knock-and-announce violation. This appeal followed.


CASE ANALYSIS

The Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), that a police officer’s use of force (whether deadly or not) violates the Fourth Amendment only if it is objectively unreasonable under “the facts and circumstances of each particular case.” Because “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments … in situations that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving,” “the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment.” The Court judges an officer’s use of force “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” As a result, in more recent cases the Court has suggested that an officer’s actions before his or her use of force are therefore irrelevant to the reasonableness inquiry.

The Ninth Circuit recognizes and applies the Graham test to an officer’s use of force, but it adds a test of its own: the provocation doctrine. Under the provocation doctrine, “[w]here 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 this case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the deputies were liable for their use of excessive force under the provocation doctrine. The court wrote “that because the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by searching the shack without a warrant, which proximately caused the plaintiffs’ injuries, liability was proper.” But the court also ruled that even if the provocation doctrine did not apply, the deputies would be liable under ordinary notions of proximate cause. The court said that “[t]he deputies are therefore liable for the shooting as a foreseeable consequence of their unconstitutional entry even though the shooting itself was not unconstitutionally excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.” The parties wrangle over these rulings. (The parties do not dispute that the deputies’ entry into the Mendez residence violated the Fourth Amendment.)

Stated more simply: the parties disagree as to the application of the provocation doctrine and ordinary notions of proximate cause, where the deputies entered the Mendez residence in violation of the Fourth Amendment and where the deputies thought they saw Mr. Mendez pointing a rifle at them. Both questions—the provocation doctrine and ordinary notions of proximate cause—turn on the connection (both causal and temporal) between the deputies’ entry into the Mendez residence and the shooting, with the added complication that the deputies thought they saw Mr. Mendez pointing a rifle at them after their entrance but before the shooting.

(More precisely, these principles apply in this case to the deputies’ claims of qualified immunity. This only means that the deputies are immune from liability if the underlying constitutional rights were not violated, or if the underlying constitutional rights were not clearly established at the time of the violation. But this turns out not to matter much in the way the parties pitch their arguments.)

The deputies argue first that under Graham they did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they shot the Mendezes. The deputies claim that the shooting was reasonable when judged as of “the moment” they shot. They say that as of the moment they shot, Mr. Mendez was pointing the BB gun toward them, that they reasonably believed the BB gun was a firearm rifle, and that they reasonably believed that Mr. Mendez threatened their lives. They contend that their use of force was therefore reasonable in order to protect their own lives, and that they did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The deputies argue next that the courts cannot convert their reasonable use of force into an unreasonable use of force based on a provocation rule, as the lower courts did. They claim that the provocation rule improperly considers an officer’s actions before the seizure, in violation of the Court’s more recent cases, which hold that “the officer’s actions before the seizure—even in the seconds immediately before the seizure—are not relevant to the reasonableness of the seizure.” The deputies say that a focus only on the “moment” of the seizure is appropriate, given that officers often have to make “split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” Moreover, the deputies contend that the provocation rule allows a court to impose liability merely because there was “an independent Fourth Amendment violation” at some point before the seizure. They contend that their failure to knock and announce was not closely enough connected to the shooting—it wasn’t the “proximate cause” of the shooting, even if it was a farther-removed “but-for” cause of the shooting—to impose liability.

Finally, the deputies argue that without the provocation rule they cannot be liable for the shooting, even if they could be liable for failure to secure a warrant. The deputies say that the shooting, which was objectively reasonable, was not sufficiently connected to their failure to obtain a warrant, and that the courts therefore cannot impose liability for the shooting based on the failure to secure a warrant. According to the deputies, “[t]hat is why the district court awarded only nominal damages for the Deputies’ failure to secure a warrant—an acknowledgment that the violation did not proximately cause their physical injury.” Moreover, they contend that even if their failure to secure a warrant reasonably could have resulted in a shooting, “Mr. Mendez’s act of pointing a gun at the Deputies was a superseding cause of [the Mendez’s] ensuing injuries, and therefore cut off any possibility of liability for the shooting.” The deputies argue that “[o]fficers should not and cannot be held liable for the damages resulting from their ensuing reasonable response” to this kind of intervening act.

(The government weighed in as amicus curiae in support of the deputies and makes substantially similar arguments.)

In response, the Mendezes argue first that the shooting was a foreseeable result of the deputies’ entry into their home without first knocking and announcing. They claim that the district court “repeatedly found that entering Mr. Mendez’s home without warning could lead to a violent confrontation,” and that Mr. Mendez’s conduct (moving his BB gun) “was not culpable.” According to the Mendezes, this means that Mr. Mendez’s act of moving his BB gun was not a superseding cause of the shooting, and that the deputies are therefore liable based on a direct connection between their unlawful entry and the shooting. The Mendezes claim that the Court should resolve the case on this argument alone, because it is dispositive of the appeal and avoids addressing any constitutional question.

If the Court finds it necessary to address the constitutional question, however, the Mendezes argue next that the Court can, and should, consider the totality of the circumstances (and not just the officers’ actions in “the moment”) in judging whether the deputies violated the Fourth Amendment. They say that a contrary approach could lead to “perverse and untenable results,” because it would ignore an officer’s unreasonable and unconstitutional actions that ultimately led to a shooting. The Mendezes claim that this is exactly what happened here: the deputies' preshooting conduct in entering their home in violation of the Fourth Amendment was both unreasonable and unconstitutional, and it foreseeably led to their use of force.

Finally, the Mendezes argue that the deputies’ unlawful entry into their home was the proximate cause (and not merely “but-for” cause) of their injuries. They say that “no one denies that gunshot wounds are within the scope of the risk created by an unlawful shooting,” and, in any event, that the purpose of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant clause “is to avoid serious confrontations because of uncertainty regarding the legal authority for a non-consensual search.” Under either approach, the Mendezes contend that the deputies’ unlawful entry into their home was the proximate cause of their injuries, and the deputies are therefore liable, the provocation doctrine notwithstanding.


SIGNIFICANCE

Most importantly, this case tests the durability of the Ninth Circuit’s provocation doctrine against Graham and the Supreme Court’s more recent suggestions that an officer’s actions before the officer uses force should not count in determining the officer’s liability for that use of force under the Fourth Amendment. The provocation doctrine may be in tension with Graham and those more recent suggestions, because it allows courts to consider an officer’s actions that occurred before a use of force, so long as those actions provoked a person to behave in a way that permits the officer to use force. In other words, the provocation doctrine may expand the window of time and causal connection (relative to Graham and more recent cases) that a court may consider when determining whether an officer’s use of force was objectively reasonable. This case tests whether that “expansion” stands up against Graham and more recent cases. A ruling upholding the provocation doctrine would favor victims in civil rights disputes; a ruling overturning it would favor officers.

The second issue also involves causal and temporal connections, but under the ordinary proximate cause standard. This is important, because the ordinary proximate cause standard applies to civil rights claims like this one. The Court’s ruling will tell us just how related an unconstitutional action (like the deputies’ entry into the Mendez home) must be to the injury in order to support a civil rights claim. A ruling for the Mendezes would probably favor future civil rights plaintiffs, while a ruling for the deputies would probably favor future officers.



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