Monthly Archives: June 2017

Downtown Bellingham’s Loitering Problem: What’s the Answer?

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Excellent article by Kie Relyea of the Bellingham Herald discusses the problem of increased loitering in downtown Bellingham.

According to Relyea, downtown business owners are telling city leaders they need help. They’re tired of people sleeping in the doorways of their buildings, lighting fires in their alcoves, and having to clean up after those who leave behind stolen bicycles, trash, feces and drug paraphernalia such as used needles.

That, and a rise in antisocial behavior and unseemly loitering, is making some people who visit and work in downtown Bellingham feel unsafe.

Relyea reports that Bellingham residents reported feeling less safe when walking alone downtown during the day and night than previously, according to a recent survey of residents’ views about issues facing the community. The March 12 deadly shooting in downtown also raised a great deal of concern about safety downtown.

THE STATISTICS

According to Relyea, Bellingham Police Department statistics showed a nearly 2.5 percent increase in overall incidents from 2013 and 2016 in downtown – going from 3,688 to 3,778 responses that were both criminal and non-criminal in nature. For 2016 alone, 53 percent of the incidents police responded to in the downtown were non-criminal in nature.

Criminal incidents would be arrestable offenses such as assaults, robbery and rape. Non-criminal could include responding to people with mental problems, someone violating the sitting and lying ordinance, or someone who was drunk.

 

SOLUTIONS

Relyea reports that business owners want to help those who want to be helped. This means opening a bigger shelter for the homeless, getting them into housing, finding them jobs and helping people struggling with mental health and addiction.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said prevention was important to her, and the city spends up to $450,000 a year toward such efforts, including for the Homeless Outreach Team, community paramedic and intensive case management.

An upcoming project called Whatcom GRACE (for Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement) also could help, by reaching out to those being called “familiar faces” – people who tend to fall through the cracks over and over, and who have a number of needs such as housing, behavioral health and substance abuse. They’re also the ones who come into contact with a number of organizations.

Apparently, police believe it’s a safety issue to not have people blocking sidewalks where there are pedestrians. However, the ACLU and homeless advocates said such laws target people who are visibly poor and homeless, and could be unconstitutional.

Bellingham Council member Michael Lilliquist gave his perspective:

“For some people, including myself, restricting and limiting people from sitting down is not a well-aimed tool. For one thing, sitting down is sometimes a perfectly fine and normal thing to do. In addition, our police tell me it is difficult to enforce and easy to avoid,” he said.

“For example, people can move just a little distance, such as where the alleyway or a driveway cuts through, and then they are technically not in violation because it is not a ‘sidewalk’ under the definition,” Lilliquist added. “It seems like a lot of work, and some hostility, to get at something that is not the heart of the problem.”

My opinion?

First, don’t criminalize homelessness. That’s not the answer, and only leads to violating people’s constitutional rights. Second, if anything, divert more resources to addressing mental health and substance abuse.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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In United States v. Gorman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Fourth Amendment was violated when an officer unreasonably prolonged an initial traffic stop and radioed for a drug-sniffing dog after because he thought there were drugs in the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In January 2013, a police officer stopped Straughn Gorman on Interstate-80 outside Wells, Nevada for a minor traffic infraction. The officer thought Gorman might be carrying drug money. Acting on this concern, he unsuccessfully attempted to summon a drug-sniffing dog and then prolonged Gorman’s roadside detention, which lasted nearly half an hour, as he conducted a non-routine records check.

Unable to justify searching the vehicle, he questioned Gorman further and finally released him without a citation.

Undeterred, the officer then developed the bright idea of contacting the sheriff’s office in Elko, a city further along Gorman’s route, to request that one of their officers stop Gorman a second time. The first officer conveyed his suspicions that Gorman was carrying drug money, described Gorman’s vehicle and direction of travel, and reported that his traffic stop had provided no basis for a search. “You’re going to need a dog,” he said. A second officer, who had a dog with him, then made a special trip to the highway to intercept Gorman’s vehicle.

The second officer saw Gorman and eventually believed he had found a traffic reason to pull him over. Following the second stop, the second officer performed a series of redundant record checks and conducted a dog sniff. The dog signaled the odor of drugs or drug-tainted currency. On the basis of the dog’s alert, the second officer obtained a search warrant, searched the vehicle, and found $167,070 in cash in various interior compartments.

No criminal charges arising from this incident were ever brought against Gorman. Instead, the government attempted to appropriate the seized money through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to “seize . . . property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent.” Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 847 (2017).

Gorman contested the forfeiture by arguing that the coordinated stops violated the Fourth Amendment. He prevailed. The federal district court ordered that his money be returned and also awarded him attorneys’ fees. The Government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals (1) affirmed the lower court’s order granting claimant’s motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to a traffic stop; (2) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees; and (3) held that the search of claimant’s vehicle following coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals held that the first stop of claimant’s vehicle was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that the Supreme Court has made clear that traffic stops can last only as long as is reasonably necessary to carry out the “mission” of the stop, unless police have an independent reason to detain the motorist longer. The “mission” of a stop includes “determining whether to issue a traffic ticket” and “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015).

Additionally, the Court held that the dog sniff and search of claimant’s vehicle during the coordinated second vehicle stop followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation; and consequently, the seized currency from the second stop was the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.

Finally, the Court held that none of the exceptions to the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine – the “independent source” exception, the “inevitable discovery” exception, and the “attenuated basis” exception – applied to claimant’s case.

Good decision.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

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In United States v. Orozco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to stop and search commercial vehicles for no reason violates the Fourth Amendment as unlawfully pretextual.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, law enforcement received a tip that defendant Victor Orozco – a commercial truck driver – regularly transported illegal drugs across the border inside his semi truck. Unbeknownst to Orozco, Nevada had a statutory and administrative scheme  allowing its police officers to pull over and search commercial vehicles for contraband under the notion that these searched perform a public safety purpose.

On April 27, 2013, the tipster said Orozco would be driving through White Pine County,
Nevada. Trooper Zehr of the Nevada Highway Patrol was advised of the vehicle and its location. He was told he would have to develop his own probable cause to get the vehicle stopped because there could possibly be drugs in the vehicle, but there was nothing solid.

Troopers targeted Orozco’s truck and pulled it over. They discovered the truck had made several trips across the border. Eventually, a K-9 officer dog arrived and made a positive alert as to the presence of drugs. The troopers found a duffel bag containing twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin in the sleeper compartment.

Prior to trial, Orozco moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the inspection of his vehicle was an impermissible pretext “motivated by a desire to search for evidence of drug trafficking, rather than to conduct a commercial vehicle inspection.” However, because “safety inspections” were part of a facially valid administrative scheme, the district judge held that the stop of Orozco’s truck was lawful. Later, Orozco was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance for which he was sentenced to 192 months in prison.

LEGAL ISSUE ON APPEAL

Orozco appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the stop was justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

In short, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Orozco’s motion to suppress, vacated his conviction for two counts of drug possession arising from the stop of his vehicle and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

“Nevada Highway Patrol troopers made the stop in order to investigate criminal activity, even though they lacked the quantum of evidence necessary to justify the stop,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. Based on that, the stop was not justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The Court of Appels further reasoned that although an administrative scheme allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to make stops of commercial vehicles and conduct limited inspections without reasonable suspicion was valid on its face because its purpose was to ensure the safe operation of commercial vehicles, the evidence in this case, however, established beyond doubt that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was a pretext for a stop to investigate information of suspected criminal activity short of that necessary to give rise to reasonable suspicion.

“The stop would not have been made in the absence of a tip that the defendant was possibly carrying narcotics. Accordingly, the stop was a pretextual stop that violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court further emphasized that the presence of a criminal investigatory motive, by itself, does not render an administrative stop pretextual, and nor does a dual motive—one valid and one impermissible. “Rather, the defendant must show that the stop would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.”

With that, the Court reversed Orozco’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretextual stops are often used by police officers as an excuse to initiate a stop and search of automobiles suspected of being involved in criminal activity. These stops involve police officers stopping drivers for traffic violations – minor or otherwise – to conduct investigations which are separate and unrelated to the original reasons substantiating the stop. Pretextual traffic stops give police officer a lot of discretion in who they choose to stop and for what reasons. Too much discretion. Again, good decision.

Shackled in Court

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In United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a lower federal court’s policy of routinely shackling all defendants in the courtroom was unconstitutional.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, the judges of the Southern District of California approached the U.S. Marshals Service and requested “a district-wide policy of allowing the Marshals Service to bring all in-custody defendants in full restraints for most non-jury proceedings.” “Full restraints” means that a defendant’s hands are closely handcuffed together, these handcuffs are connected by chain to another chain running around the defendant’s waist, and the defendant’s feet are shackled and chained together.

Starting on the first day of the policy’s implementation, the Federal Defenders of San Diego objected to the routine use of shackles and requested that each defendant’s shackles be removed. The judges routinely denied the requests, relying on the Marshals Service’s general security concerns. The judges also pointed to increasing security threats from what they viewed as changing demographics and increasing case loads in their district.

The shackling was the same regardless of a defendant’s individual characteristics. One defendant had a fractured wrist but appeared in court wearing full restraints. Nevertheless, the judge denied her motion to remove the restraints, Another defendant was vision-impaired. One of his hands was free of restraint so he could use his cane, but his other hand was shackled and secured to a chain around his waist and his legs were shackled together. His objection to the restraints was also denied.  And another defendant was shackled despite being brought into court in a wheelchair due to her “dire and deteriorating” health. The court “noted” her objection to the shackles and denied the defendant’s motion to remove the shackles.

Defendants appealed these denials to the district court and also filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the district-wide policy. The district courts denied all relief. All four cases were consolidated for review of the policy’s constitutionality.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

This 9th Circuit said that under the Fifth Amendment, no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again that “liberty from bodily restraint always has been recognized as the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause from arbitrary governmental action. Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 316 (1982).

Liberty from bodily restraint includes the right to be free from shackles in the courtroom, reasoned the court. Also, the right to be free from unwarranted shackles no matter the proceeding respects our founding principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

“The principle isn’t limited to juries or trial proceedings,” said the Court. It also includes the perception of any person who may walk into a public courtroom, as well as those of the jury, the judge and court personnel:

“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain . . . The fact that the proceeding is non-jury does not diminish the degradation a prisoner suffers when needlessly paraded about a courtroom, like a dancing bear on a lead, wearing belly chains and manacles.”

The Court further reasoned that the most visible and public manifestation of our criminal justice system is the courtroom. “Courtrooms are palaces of justice, imbued with a majesty that reflects the gravity of proceedings designed to deprive a person of liberty or even life.” It reasoned that a member of the public who wanders into a criminal courtroom must immediately perceive that it is a place where justice is administered with due regard to individuals whom the law presumes to be innocent. That perception cannot prevail if defendants are marched in like convicts on a chain gang. “Both the defendant and the public have the right to a dignified, inspiring and open court process. Thus, innocent defendants may not be shackled at any point in the courtroom unless there is an individualized showing of need.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that it has a long tradition of giving correctional officials a wide berth in maintaining security within their own facilities. “But we don’t have a tradition of deferring to correctional or law enforcement officers as to the treatment of individuals appearing in public courtrooms.”

Here, in the courtroom, law enforcement officers have no business proposing policies for the treatment of parties as a class. Insofar as they have information pertaining to particular defendants, they may, of course, bring it to the court’s attention. But a blanket policy applied to all defendants infuses the courtroom with a prison atmosphere. The Marshals Service should not have proposed it and the judges should not have paid heed.

“We must take seriously how we treat individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system—from how our police interact with them on the street to how they appear in the courtroom. How the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public’s perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling and “perp walks” are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise. We must treat people with respect and dignity even though they are suspected of a crime.”

Finally, the Court reasoned that the Constitution enshrines a fundamental right to be free of unwarranted restraints. “Thus, we hold that if the government seeks to shackle a defendant, it must first justify the infringement with specific security needs as to that particular defendant.” Courts must decide whether the stated need for security outweighs the infringement on a defendant’s right. This decision cannot be deferred to security providers or presumptively answered by routine policies, said the Court. “All of these requirements apply regardless of a jury’s presence or whether it’s a pretrial, trial or sentencing proceeding. Criminal defendants, like any other party appearing in court, are entitled to enter the courtroom with their heads held high.”

My Opinion? Excellent decision. Unless a defendant is particularly dangerous to themselves or others, there is simply no reason to parade them around the court like animals. It’s degrading, demoralizing and reduces respect for the criminal justice system; especially if defendants are not yet found guilty for crimes.

Pretrial Publicity & Change of Venue

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In State v. Munzanreder, the WA Court of Appeals held that the jury selection process used by the trial court – which included a written questionnaire with a number of questions regarding exposure to media reports and questioning each juror individually about media exposure – protected the defendant’s constitutional rights to an impartial venue. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the motion to change venue.

BACKGROUND FACTS

John J. Munzanreder appealed his conviction for the first degree murder of his wife. Because of the sensational nature of the alleged crime, local media extensively covered his case from arrest through trial.

Munzanreder worked with Juan Ibanez at Valley Ford in Yakima, Washington. In
early February 2013, Ibanez approached Munzanreder and asked him for money for a
toolbox. Munzanreder agreed to give him the money ifhe helped get rid of somebody.
Munzanreder told Ibanez that he wanted help killing his wife, Cynthia, and would give
him $20,000. Ibanez said he would help, but he would not kill her.

Munzanreder gave Ibanez cash and directed him to purchase a gun. Munzanreder
told Ibanez his plan: Munzanreder and his wife would go the movies, he would shoot her
with the new gun, he would then throw the gun to Ibanez in some nearby bushes, and
Ibanez would run away with the gun.

On February 28, 2013, the Munzanreders went to see a movie at the Majestic
Theater in Union Gap, Washington, a small city immediately south of Yakima. Ibanez received a prearranged text message from Munzanreder that the plan would be executed
and went to the theater and waited in the bushes adjacent to the theater’s parking lot.

After the movie, as the couple approached their car, Munzanreder shot his wife with the
gun purchased by Ibanez. Munzanreder then threw the gun into the bushes where Ibanez
waited. As Ibanez left the scene with the gun, he ran past a couple near his car.

Law enforcement arrived and questioned witnesses. Munzanreder told law
enforcement he heard a shot and saw a man in black clothes running away. Munzanreder
said he had followed the man, but fell and injured himself, developing a black eye.

Munzanreder’s wife later died from her injuries.

Law enforcement continued to investigate. They interviewed Ibanez, whose car
had been reported at the crime scene. Ibanez quickly confessed and told law enforcement
of the details of the crime. Media coverage of both the murder and the arrests quickly
saturated Yakima County.

Munzanreder was charged with Murder in the First Degree. The State also sought a Deadly Weapon Enhancement because the crime occurred with a handgun.

The Jury Questionnairre

Defense counsel and the State had worked together to create an agreed juror
questionnaire. The purpose of the questionnaire was to uncover juror bias, so that the
trial court and the parties could individually interview venire jurors with possible bias in
open court but outside the presence of other venire jurors.

The questionnaire contained many questions, including questions focusing on
pretrial publicity about the case. Those questions asked the venire jurors to list media
sources they used, whether they generally believed the media, whether they thought the
media was fair to both sides of a case, and what criminal cases they followed in the
media. It also specifically asked about Munzanreder’s case. The questionnaire asked
venire jurors if they knew information about the case from any sources, and concluded the
section by asking if they had formed any opinions about the case. The questionnaire also
asked venire jurors if they wanted to discuss their answers separately from other jurors.

The completed questionnaires revealed that 105 of the remaining 128 venire jurors knew
about the case; of these 105, 24 had formed opinions; and of these 24, most believed
Munzanreder was guilty.

Before the remaining venire panel returned to the courtroom, Munzanreder orally
moved for a change of venue. The motion was anticipated because Munzanreder had
earlier said he would make such a motion, and had provided the trial court and the State
with copies of local media stories and media Facebook posts.

The State, although opposing Munzanreder’s motion, indicated the trial court might give additional peremptory challenges. Munzanreder responded that he might ask for additional peremptory challenges, but would not do so until after the court ruled on his motion. The trial court took the motion under advisement and said it would make its ruling later in the jury selection process.

The parties completed voir dire and then went through the process of selecting the
Jury. The trial court permitted each party 6 peremptory challenges for the first 12 jurors,
and 1 additional peremptory challenge for each of the 3 alternate jurors. Munzanreder
never asked for additional peremptory challenges.

The panel was sworn in. The trial court provided the panel various preliminary
instructions and then excused them for lunch. With the panel excused, the trial court gave
its oral ruling denying Munzanreder’s motion to change venue.

Over the next several days, the parties presented their evidence.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on 1st degree murder with a firearm
enhancement. The trial court sentenced Munzanreder to 340 months of incarceration.

Munzanreder timely appealed. His principal arguments on appeal are the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion to change venue, and the voir dire process used by the trial court failed to protect his constitutional right to an impartial jury.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court applied a Gunwall analysis to determine if the Washington Constitution provides greater protection than the United States Constitution in a particular context.  A Gunwall analysis must be performed, if litigants want the court to consider whether a parallel constitutional provision affords differing protections.

Here, the Court found that Munzanreder’s state constitutional right to an impartial jury should be interpreted as providing the same degree of protection as the parallel federal constitutional right. The Court similarly held that article I, section 22 of the WA Constitution’s right to an impartial jury does not provide any more protection than the Sixth Amendment.

Second, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the voir dire process employed in his case was insufficient. It reasoned that under Lopez-Stayer v.
Pitts, a trial court has considerable discretion in conducting voir dire. Abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court bases its decision on untenable grounds or untenable reasons.

Here,  the Court of Appeals discussed how extensive and meticulous jury selection was in this case. The trial court summoned 243 potential jurors. The parties worked together to craft an extensive juror questionnaire that satisfied the State, Munzanreder, and the trial court. The trial court granted several dozen individual interviews in open court outside the presence of other venire jurors. The trial court was fully involved with the process, and asked questions designed to expose bias and to ensure that jurors would reach a verdict based on the evidence presented at trial and on the court’s instructions on the law. Jury selection took over four days. Munzanreder did not request additional peremptory challenges, despite knowing he had that option. Munzanreder simply asserts now that the process was insufficient, although he was heavily involved at trial in developing the process used. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals decided that because Munzanreder does not show an abuse of discretion, his appeal on this issue fails.

Third, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the jury selection process used by the trial court was constitutionally deficient. He attempts to punctuate his point by showing that four biased jurors were empaneled. The Court reasoned that A party may challenge a juror for cause under CrR 6.4(c); and RCW 4.44.170. The trial court is in the best position to determine whether a juror can be fair and impartial because the trial court is able to observe the juror’s demeanor and evaluate the juror’s answers to determine whether the juror would be fair and impartial. For this reason, this court reviews a trial court’s denial of a challenge for cause for a manifest abuse of discretion.

Here, the Court of Appeals found no manifest abuse of discretion. Munzanreder failed to use his peremptory challenges to remove juror #51, a potentially bad and unbiased juror. He also elected not to request additional peremptory challenges. If the trial court erred in denying Munzanreder’ s for cause challenge of venire juror 51, because Munzanreder elected not to remove venire juror #51 with his allotted peremptory challenges or by requesting additional challenges, Munzanreder waived that error.

Fourth, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for a change of venue. He primarily argues the pretrial media publicity was overwhelmingly inflammatory, which prejudiced the jury pool against him. The Court reasoned that in order to prevail on a change of venue motion, the defendant need only show a probability of unfairness or prejudice. Sheppard v. MaxwellState v. Rupe. The following nonexclusive factors aid our review of whether a trial court abused its discretion in denying a change of venue motion:

(I) the inflammatory or noninflammatory nature of the publicity; (2) the degree to which the publicity was circulated throughout the community; (3) the length of time elapsed from the dissemination of the publicity to the date of trial; (4) the care exercised and the difficulty encountered in the selection of the jury; (5) the familiarity of prospective or trial jurors with the publicity and the resultant effect upon them; (6) the challenges exercised by the defendant in selecting the jury, both peremptory and for cause; (7) the connection of government officials with the release of publicity; (8) the severity of the charge; and (9) the size of the area from which the venire is drawn.”

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the initial venire pool provided substantial challenges because of the trial court’s careful process for selecting a jury, it was highly confident that 11 of the 12 empaneled jurors were impartial.

“If venire juror #51 was biased, Munzanreder had the opportunity to remove him,” said the Court. “Munzanreder elected not to use any of his peremptory challenges to remove venire juror 51, and he did not request additional peremptory challenges. These two facts strongly suggest that even Munzanreder believed the empaneled jury was fair and impartial.” With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Munzanreder’s motion to change venue.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals confirmed Munzanreder’s conviction.

SCOTUS Eliminates the “Provocation Rule”

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In  County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule,” a doctrine which makes officers liable for injuries caused by their use of force.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received word from a confidential informant that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While other officers searched the main house, Deputies Conley and Pederson searched the back of the property where, unbeknownst to the deputies, respondents Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived.

Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the door of the shack. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. Deputy Conley yelled, “Gun!” and the deputies immediately opened fire, shooting Mendez and Garcia multiple times.

Officers did not find the parolee in the shack or elsewhere on the property.

PLAINTIFF’S CIVIL RIGHTS CLAIMS

For those who don’t know, the “Provocation Rule” holds that if a police officer recklessly promotes a potentially violent confrontation with a Fourth Amendment violation, the officer is liable for any injury caused by a subsequent use of force that results from that confrontation, even if the use of force itself was reasonable.

Armed with the “Provocation Rule,” Mendez and Garcia sued the police deputies and the County under 42 U. S. C. §1983. They advanced three Fourth Amendment claims: a warrantless entry claim, a knock-and-announce claim, and an excessive force claim. On the first two claims, the Federal District Court awarded Mendez and Garcia nominal damages. On the excessive force claim, the court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable, but held them liable nonetheless under the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, which makes an officer’s otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if (1) the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and (2) “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation,.

The Government appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim and that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law. It also affirmed the District Court’s application of the provocation rule, and held, in the alternative, that basic notions of proximate cause would support liability even without the provocation rule.

The Government appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S Supreme Court.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

In short, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment offers no basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule.” It reasoned that the rule is incompatible with this Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, which sets forth a settled and exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the legal issue is “whether the totality of the circumstances justifies a particular sort of search or seizure.” Tennessee v. Garner.

The Court reasoned that the provocation rule instructs courts to look back in time to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force. Problematically, this approach that mistakenly conflates distinct Fourth Amendment claims. To the extent that a plaintiff has other Fourth Amendment claims, they should be analyzed separately.

“The Ninth Circuit attempts to cabin the provocation rule by defining a two-prong test: First, the separate constitutional violation must “create a situation which led to” the use of force; and second, the separate constitutional violation must be committed recklessly or intentionally,” said the Court.

The U.S. Supreme thought this approach was mistaken. First, the rule relies on a vague causal standard. Second, while the reasonableness of a search or seizure is almost always based on objective factors, the provocation rule looks to the subjective intent of the officers who carried out the seizure:

“There is no need to distort the excessive force inquiry in this way in order to hold law enforcement officers liable for the foreseeable consequences of all their constitutional torts.”

Plaintiffs can, subject to qualified immunity, generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation. Here, reasoned the Court, if respondents cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not stop them from recovering for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

“The Ninth Circuit’s proximate-cause holding is similarly tainted,” said the Court. Its focuses solely on the risks foreseeably associated with the failure to knock and announce—the claim on which the court concluded that the deputies had qualified immunity—rather than the warrantless entry.

My opinion? I concur with  blogger Radley Balko’s insights on this. He blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post, and says the following:

“The cops, on the other hand, engaged in some incredibly sloppy policing that nearly got someone killed. They violated the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights not once, but twice. Then they filled the couple with bullets after they mistook Angel Mendez’s reach for his pellet gun as a threat. Angel Mendez was shot five times, and lost his right leg below the knee. Jennifer Mendez was shot in the back. That was 6½ years ago. They still haven’t seen a dime. And after Tuesday’s ruling, it seems unlikely that they ever will.”

Exactly.