Category Archives: Qualified Immunity

SCOTUS Eliminates the “Provocation Rule”

Image result for police raid house shoot open fire

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.

Another Study Finds Few Consequences For Prosecutor Misconduct

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Blogger Radley Balko of the Washington Post describes how a large-scale study from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting discovered that systemic prosecutor misconduct in Massachusetts dated back to 1985.

The report found more than 1,000 cases in which misconduct was alleged by criminal defendants and 120 in which a state appeals court reversed conviction due to misconduct. The group found an additional 134 verdicts reversed or thrown out due to misconduct after reviewing data from the state bar.

Balko says it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the raw number of incidents because most prosecutor misconduct goes unreported. He says the failure to turn over exculpatory evidence often becomes apparent only once a defendant has exhausted their appeals, after which the defense gets access to the prosecutor’s files. But by this point, many defendants no longer have legal counsel.

Additionally, Balko poignantly describes why defense attorneys intentionally do not report prosecutorial misconduct:

“When defense attorneys do find misconduct by prosecutors, there are also some strong incentives against reporting it. Most criminal defense attorneys will also have several other clients being prosecuted by the same office, perhaps even the same prosecutor. Reporting misconduct could jeopardize the attorney’s ability to bargain for those clients. Often, the more enticing option is to use the discovery of misconduct as a bargaining chip to get a better deal for the defendant in that case and perhaps earn favor from the prosecutor in others.”

The topic is not new to Mr. Balko. He summarized a handful of similar studies in a piece for the Huffington Post a few years ago.

“There are a handful of ways to keep wayward public officials honest,” says Balko.  He believes in the success of electoral accountability as a viable option. Still, relying on voters to keep prosecutors honest is a risky proposition. “The groups more likely to be victimized by excessive prosecutors are also the groups with the least amount of political power.”

Taping Cops is Free Speech

McKinney police Cpl. Eric Casebolt is shown in a screen shot from video of an altercation in which he pulled his gun on a group of teenagers at a pool party. A witness, Brandon Brooks, uploaded this video of the incident to YouTube. In a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Justice Jacques Wiener wrote: “Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that videotaping or filming police activities is protected by the First Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS
Phillip Turner, a computer science major at Austin Community College, started collecting video of police activities after he said a Cedar Park police officer blocked his view when filming a DUI arrest several years ago. He filed a complaint and during an investigation learned that there wasn’t an established right to film the police.
Armed with his understanding of the law, Turner has since posted a series of videos on his website where he challenges police officers and police department policies on videotaping of their activities.

On the day of the incident, Mr. Turner was video recording a Fort Worth police station from a public sidewalk across the street when Officers Grinalds and Dyess approached him and asked him for identification. Turner refused to identify himself, and the officers ultimately handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car. The officers’ supervisor, Lieutenant Driver, arrived on scene. after Driver checked with Grinalds and Dyess and talked with Turner, the officers released Turner.

He filed suit against all three officers and the City of Fort Worth under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. Each officer filed a motion to dismiss, insisting that he was entitled to qualified immunity on Turner’s claims. The district court granted the officers’ motions, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity on all of Turner’s claims against them. Turner appealed.
THE COURT’S DECISION
Ultimately, the Court affirmed in part and reverse and remand in part.
“Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy,” Justice Jacques Wiener wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Stephen Higginson. “Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The 5th Circuit made it clear that such activity to be protected, saying that “a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions,” Justice Wiener wrote.

“Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy . . . Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The 5th Circuit sent the case back to the lower court to examine Turner’s claims that he was unlawfully arrested. The court cleared the officers on that point, determining the acted appropriately. In her dissent, Justice Edith Clements said Turner’s First Amendment rights were not violated and that the officers acted reasonably in detaining Turner.

Turner’s attorney Kervyn Altaffer called the 5th Circuit’s ruling a significant one in a complicated area of the law.

“I think any time one of the federal court of appeals says that something is protected by the Constitution, that is important for all people,” Altaffer said. “I definitely think they the police overstepped. … This is supposed to be a free country.”

My opinion? Cameras make everyone behave. And I’m extremely happy the 5th Circuit describes this behavior as protected free speech. Kudos to the 5th Circuit.

Special thanks to reporter Max B. Baker and the Bellingham Herald for reporting.

Deadly Force Not Justified.

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In A.K.H. v. City of Tustin, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held the government could not justify a police officer’s use of deadly force during the officer’s attempted investigatory stop of Mr. Herrera.

FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

Defendant Osvaldo Villarreal, a police officer in Tustin, California, fatally shot Benny Herrera during an attempted investigatory stop. Herrera was on foot. Officer Villarreal was in his patrol car and had just driven up beside Herrera. Herrera was in the middle of the roadway, moving in the direction of traffic. His left hand was free and visible; his right hand was in his sweatshirt pocket. Villarreal commanded Herrera to take his hand out of his pocket. Less than a second later, just as Herrera’s hand came out of his pocket, Villarreal shot him twice, killing him. Herrera was unarmed. Villarreal does not claim that he saw, or thought he saw, a weapon in Herrera’s hand.

Relatives of Herrera (“Plaintiffs”) filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Villarreal and the City of Tustin alleging that Villarreal used excessive force against Herrera in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Villarreal moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which would have effectively dismissed the lawsuit against him. However, the federal district court denied the Officer’s motion.

Officer Villarreal brought an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He argued that, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, his actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment and that the district court therefore erred in denying him qualified immunity.

THE ISSUES.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned it must ask two questions to determine whether Officer Villarreal is entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity. First, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, did Villarreal use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment? Second, if Villarreal used excessive force, did he violate a clearly established right?

THE COURT’S ANALYSIS.

Quoting Tennessee v. Garner, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that Deadly Force is permissible only if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm.

Here, the Ninth Circuit found Officer Herrera used excessive force in violation of Mr. Herrera’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Court reasoned that (1) the crime at issue was a domestic dispute that had ended before the police became involved; (2) the deceased did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, as the officer did not believe the deceased was armed and the officer did not see a weapon; (3) although the deceased did not comply with the officer’s commands to remove his hand from his sweatshirt pocket, he did not attempt to flee; and (4) the officer escalated to deadly force approximately 1 second after issuing the command to the deceased to remove his hand from his pocket. “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, we conclude that Villarreal violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law when he shot and killed Herrera.”

CONCLUSION.

In its conclusion, the Ninth Circuit said the following:

“It has long been clear that a police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, that is precisely what Officer Villarreal did here.”

My opinion? Great decision. Straightforward, direct, constitutionally sound and accurate. I’m happy the Ninth Circuit saw this case for what it was.

Kansas Cops Can’t Stop Colorado Drivers Just Because they Suspect Marijuana Possession.

Image result for marijuana 10th circuit search marijuana

In Vasquez v. Lewis & Jimerson, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit filed by a Colorado motorist against two Kansas Highway Patrol officers who pulled him over and searched his vehicle for marijuana as he was driving alone at night through Kansas on his way to Maryland.

The KHP officers, Richard Jimerson and Dax Lewis, stopped Vasquez when they could not read the temporary tag taped to the inside of the car’s tinted rear window. The officers believed they were justified in searching the vehicle because Vasquez was a citizen of Colorado driving on I-70, a “known drug corridor,” in a recently purchased, older-model car. They said he also seemed nervous.

On February 28, 2012, Vasquez filed this lawsuit against the Officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – which allows citizens to sue the government for violating Constitutional Rights – and argued that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him and searching his car without reasonable suspicion. At first, his lawsuit was dismissed. He took his lawsuit up on appeal.

The 10th Circuit found the officers violated Vasquez’s Fourth Amendment rights in searching his car without his consent. Nothing illegal was found. He had nothing more than an out-of-state license plate from Colorado, a state that has legalized marijuana. The Court found the officers violated Vasquez’s rights in searching his car:

“Accordingly, it is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate,” the ruling states.”

My opinion? Good decision. And it makes sense.  Twenty-five states permit marijuana use for medicinal purposes, with Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C. permitting some recreational use under state law.  Our federal circuit courts are simply reading the writing on the wall.

Indeed, it even appears our federal courts are actually leading the charge toward the national legalization of marijuana. In my blog post titled, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Bans Pot Prosecutions, I discuss recent news that the 9th Circuit prevented the U.S. Department of Justice from prosecuting pot charges if State laws allow for its legal possession.

Times are changing . . .

Bellingham Police Department Body Cameras Now Mandatory

A news article by Samantha Wohlfiel from of the Bellingham Herald reports that starting this July, Bellingham Police Department (BPD) will require all uniformed patrol officers to wear and use body cameras.

In 2014, the BPD started a voluntary program, allowing officers to use a body camera if they were willing. Now, Police Chief Cliff Cook has decided all uniformed patrol officers will need to wear the cameras while on duty:

“I think the original pilot and then the past year and a half … has shown us that having the videos is not only beneficial in cases of prosecution of individuals for crimes, as evidence of the actions of our officers, especially when they’re appropriate . . .  It also generally helps us resolve disputes or disagreements about what may have transpired between an officer and a citizen much more quickly and in a more definitive way.”

~Police Chief Cliff Cook

Initially, 18 officers volunteered for Bellingham’s program, and currently 34 officers are using the cameras, Cook said. He also mentioned that his police officers have noted that people often change their behavior for the better when they’re told they’re being filmed.

One of the main concerns for officers and community members has been privacy, Cook said:

“One of the concerns we talked about was the overriding concern about creating video of individuals in pretty personally trying situations that involve personal privacy, such as mental illness, or a domestic violence call in a private residence, or interviewing the victim of a crime. So there are provisions within the policy where officers are given discretion on whether they want to turn that camera on or not.”

~Police Chief Cliff Cook

Basically, the “policy” requires that officers turn on the cameras for any enforcement activity, an arrest, use of force or where they believe there will be the need to use force.

The department has a mix of cameras, some that are clipped on a lapel, others that are worn on glasses, but both have easily been knocked off in situations where officers were restraining someone, Cook said, so the department may shift toward other models.

Between 2014 and 2016, the total program cost has been $315,250, which includes things such as all hardware (the cameras, clips, glasses they sit on, etc.), software and docking stations, Cook told the council.

According to the article, the projected costs moving forward are about $35,000 to $56,000 per year each of the next two years for renewed data storage management.

Another concern was, of course, privacy:

“One of the concerns we talked about was the overriding concern about creating video of individuals in pretty personally trying situations that involve personal privacy, such as mental illness, or a domestic violence call in a private residence, or interviewing the victim of a crime. So there are provisions within the policy where officers are given discretion on whether they want to turn that camera on or not.”

~Police Chief Cliff Cook

The current policy requires that officers turn on the cameras for any enforcement activity, an arrest, use of force or where they believe there will be the need to use force.

My opinion? This is a step in the right direction. Body cameras make everyone behave better. They also catch evidence of what really transpired. Good move, BPD.

Frisks & DV Investigations

 

In Thomas v. Dillard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that although the domestic violence (DV) nature of a police investigation is relevant in assessing whether a suspect is armed and dangerous, it is not alone sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion to search.

Palomar College Police Officer Christopher Dillard responded to a call to investigate a man pushing a woman in a public area on the college’s campus. There he found Correll Thomas, a student at the college who had been hanging out with and kissing his girlfriend, Amy Husky. Although Thomas was unarmed and in fact had committed no act of domestic violence, Dillard demanded Thomas submit to a search for weapons, believing police officers are free to conduct a Terry frisk whenever they are investigating a potential “domestic violence” incident, regardless of the specific circumstances of the call or the facts encountered at the scene. When Thomas refused to be searched, Dillard tased him. Thomas sued Dillard under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting unlawful seizure and excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.

The 9th Circuit held that although the domestic violence nature of a police investigation is a relevant consideration in assessing whether there is reason to believe a suspect is armed and dangerous, it is not alone sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion:

“Because domestic violence encompasses too many criminal acts of varying degrees of seriousness for an officer to form reasonable suspicion a suspect is armed from that label alone, we hold domestic violence is not a crime such as bank robbery or trafficking in large quantities of drugs that is, as a general matter, likely to involve the use of weapons.”

Therefore, officer Dillard violated plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure by detaining him for the purpose of performing a Terry frisk.

However, the 9th Circuit held that Dillard was entitled to protection from the lawsuit under qualified immunity because it was not clearly established at the time that the initial demand for a frisk was unlawful. The court further held that it was not clearly established at the time that continuing to detain a noncompliant domestic violence suspect for the purpose of executing a frisk and tasing him when he refused to comply were unlawful.

My opinion? On the one hand, it’s refreshing that the Court understood the 4th Amendment issues presented in this case. Forcing a Terry search is unlawful under these circumstances. However, I disagree with the court that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

Wrongful Incarceration

In Garcia v. County of Riverside, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that an individual’s lawsuit against police may proceed when the jail did not engage in readily available identity checks to ensure that they were not detaining the wrong person.

Plaintiff was arrested for DUI in Riverside County, California, on November 26, 2012. He was booked in a Riverside County jail. A booked individual is electronically fingerprinted through a system called “Livescan.” The Livescan image is then sent to the California Department of Justice.

When Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) officers searched for Plaintiff “Mario Garcia,” they found a felony warrant for Mario L. Garcia issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1994. The warrant described Mario L. Garcia using only his first and last name, date of birth, height, and weight. The first and last name and birth date matched Plaintiff’s own. However, the authorities did not forward information on Mario L. Garcia’s biometric identifiers, middle name, or criminal record, all of which were different from Plaintiff’s.

AS a result, RCSD matched Plaintiff to the warrant and told him that he would be detained, despite Plaintiff’s protests that he was not Mario L. Garcia and that he had been mistakenly detained before based on the same warrant.

The next day Plaintiff was transferred to an LA County jail, where he alleges that he repeated his complaints to LASD officers. Plaintiff contends that LASD knew or should have known that he was not Mario L. Garcia for several reasons: (1) their middle names do not match; (2) their height and weight differ considerably (Mario L. Garcia is listed as 5’1″, 130 lbs. Plaintiff is 5’10”, 170 lbs.); (3) Plaintiff’s biometric identifiers, including fingerprints and CII number, did not match the subject’s; and (4) Plaintiff’s criminal history, which was linked in the system to his fingerprints, did not match the subject’s.

Plaintiff sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment by LASD, LA County, and several other defendants. He also brought state-law claims against LASD and LA County. He claimed that it is the policy of LASD to ignore identification processes, to ignore prisoners’ complaints of misidentification, and to accept an outside agency’s determination that an arrestee is the subject of a warrant rather than conduct an independent identity check upon booking in LA County.

The LASD and LA County’s defense was “Qualified Immunity.”

For those who don’t know, “Qualified Immunity” protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that they violated plaintiffs’ rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

The “Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”

Here, the 9th Circuit decided that law enforcement’s failed to investigate his claim of mistaken identity after he was arrested. There was an obvious physical discrepancy between the warrant subject and Mr. Garcia, the most obvious which consisted of a nine-inch difference in height. That, accompanied by a detainee’s complaints of misidentification, should prompt officers to engage in readily available and resource-efficient identity checks, such as a fingerprint comparison, to ensure that they are not detaining the wrong person.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Civil rights violations do not always involve incidents of police shootings or beatings. Wrongful incarceration is covered, too. I’m happy the 9th Circuit understands this.