U.S. Supreme Court Finds Ninth Circuit Court’s Provocation Rule an “Unwarranted and Illogical Expansion” of Excessive Force Jurisprudence

Posted on June 12th, 2017 by Derek P. Hartman

Recently, we introduced readers to the United States Supreme Court Case of County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, a case involving a law enforcement officer’s excessive use of force. Mendez is a controversial case of national interest as it pins law enforcement officers longstanding right to qualified immunity against an individual’s right to be free from injuries caused by unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court held, in pertinent part, that Plaintiffs who suffer injuries that arise from law enforcement officers use of force must show, based on a totality of the circumstances, that the use of force was unreasonable. In rendering this opinion, the Court unanimously overruled the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, citing it as an “unwarranted and illogical expansion” of long-standing excessive force jurisprudence.

The issue before the Court was whether law enforcement officers could be held liable for injuries caused by their use of force if the officer 1) “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and 2) the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation. The Court found “when an officer carries out a seizure that is reasonable, taking into account all relevant circumstances, there is no valid excessive force claim.” The Court reemphasized the “bright-line” rule which was established in 1989 in the seminal case of Graham v. Connor, which held that the operative question in excessive force cases is “whether the totality of the circumstances justifies a particular type of search or seizure.” This opinion effectively abolishes the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule in favor of the bright-line rule implemented by the Court in Graham.

The Courts holding in Mendez attempts to strike a balance between the State’s interest in providing law enforcement officers qualified immunity versus an individual’s right to recover for damages which result from an officer’s use of force. This holding provides municipalities, insurers, and law enforcement officers a clear directive regarding liability for excessive force claims. We expect this rule to produce predictable and consistent results in its application. Consistency will assist insurers in quantifying risk which should, in theory, reduce insurance premiums. Municipalities can then allocate these excess funds to other compelling governmental interests such as community improvements and education.