WASHINGTON — A unanimous Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with sheriff’s deputies in a legal dispute stemming from 2010, when an innocent couple was shot while California deputies searched for a wanted man.
The justices overturned an award of $4 million in damages to the couple and ordered a lower court to take another look at whether the deputies should be held liable for the shooting.
Deputies were searching for a parolee when they entered the backyard shack in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. Seeing an armed man, they fired shots that seriously wounded him and his pregnant girlfriend.
But the man wasn’t the suspect they were searching for, and it turned out he was carrying a BB gun. A federal appeals court ruled that the deputies were liable because they provoked a violent confrontation by entering the shack without a warrant.
Justice Samuel Alito said such a “provocation rule” is not compatible with excessive force claims under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. If the officers were reasonable in using force to defend themselves, Alito said, a court should not go back in time to see whether the incident was provoked.
“We hold that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis for such a rule,” Alito said. “A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.”
Deputies had been told before they entered the cluttered backyard that a man and woman were living in a shack there, according to court records. When they opened the door, one of the officers saw a man holding a gun, shouted “gun” and two officers fired 15 shots.
The man, Angel Mendez, said he had picked up his BB gun at the time officers entered in order to move it. As a result of the shooting, Mendez’s leg had to be amputated below the knee. His girlfriend was shot in the back.
Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in the case, which was argued before he joined the high court.
In other action on Tuesday, the justices:
- Sided with a Mexican immigrant who faced deportation after he was convicted of having consensual sex with his underage girlfriend. The justices ruled unanimously that while Juan Esquivel-Quintana committed a crime under California law, his conduct did not violate federal immigration law.
- Ruled that patent owners generally can’t restrict the resale of their products. The decision came in a case in which Lexmark International sought to prevent the re-use of its printer toner cartridges. The justices ruled in favor of Impression Products, which takes empty Lexmark cartridges, fills them with toner and sells them at a discount. The court held that Lexmark’s patent rights end with the initial sale of the cartridges, whether in the United States or abroad.
- Agreed to decide whether Ohio wrongfully purged eligible voters from the state’s registration list based on their failure to vote in recent elections. State officials are appealing a lower court ruling that said the process is illegal.