In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday made it harder for citizens to sue law enforcement in instances wherein police barge into a home and provoke a shooting.
The decision set aside a $4 million verdict that had been awarded to a homeless couple against two Los Angeles County deputies.
The case began in 2010, when, according to The Los Angeles Times, police were searching for a man who’d violated the terms of his parole. He was believed to be violent, armed and dangerous
Working off a tip, deputies raided a house in Lancaster, CA, without a warrant.
A dozen officers encircled the property, with several breaking through the front door and others moving to search three metal storage sheds and a shack in the back yard.
Inside the shed, a deputy pulled back a blue blanket to reveal a homeless couple who had been sleeping. Startled and half-awake, the man, Angel Mendez, reached for a nearby BB gun. The sight of a possible weapon prompted a deputy to yell “Gun!”
Fifteen shots were fired – in the aftermath, Mendez lost a leg while his pregnant wife, Jennifer Garcia Mendez, was hit in the back.
Deputies didn’t find the fugitive they were looking for.
Mendez and his wife filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department not long afterward.
After the first trial concluded, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald awarded the couple $4 million; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, agreeing with Fitzgerald that the deputies had acted recklessly and provoked a confrontation.
The unanimous Supreme Court ruling, which brushed aside some of the arguments made by lower courts, rejected what The LA Times refers to as “the so-called provocation rule,” which states “police can be sued for violating a victim’s constitutional rights against unreasonable searches if they provoked a confrontation that resulted in violence.”
Trying to rebut the arguments of the lower courts, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote in the 8-0 decision, “The problem with provocation rule is that provides a novel and supported path to liability in cases in which the use of force was reasonable.”
A federal judge had earlier ruled that, while the police responded appropriately to the sight of a man reaching for what appeared to be a firearm, they were liable for damages given they’d intruded onto private property without a warrant and without announcing their presence.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t definitively revoke the $4 million verdict, it ruled that its predecessors were wrong to rely on the ‘provocation rule.’
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will determine whether the Mendez’s 4th Amendment rights were violated.