WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of police officers who had been sued for using excessive force and an immigrant who had faced deportation for statutory rape. The justices also agreed to decide whether Ohio had been to aggressive in purging its voter rolls.
In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that an appeals court had used the wrong standard in sustaining a $4 million judgment against two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
The case arose from a confrontation in 2010. The deputies, searching for a criminal suspect, entered a shack without a warrant while its two occupants were napping. When one of them, Angel Mendez, picked up a BB gun, the deputies shot him and his pregnant companion, Jennifer Garcia. They sustained serious injuries, and part of Mr. Mendez’s right leg was amputated.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, assumed that the use of force by the deputies had been reasonable once they were inside the shack. But the court said the deputies could nonetheless be sued because they had provoked the confrontation by entering the shack without a warrant.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the Supreme Court, rejected that theory. “The rule’s fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist,” he wrote.
The justices returned the case, County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, No. 16-369, to the appeals court for further proceedings, suggesting that the award might be sustained on a different theory.
“For example,” Justice Alito wrote, “if the plaintiffs in this case cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.”
In a second unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that people convicted of having consensual sex with youths over 16 are not subject to mandatory deportation.
The case concerned Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a lawful permanent resident who pleaded no contest in 2009 in California to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger.” Under California law, a minor is a person under 18. Over the five months of their relationship. Mr. Esquivel-Quintana was 20 or 21, and the minor was 16.
The federal government sought to deport him under a federal law that calls for removal of people who have committed aggravated felonies, including “sexual abuse of a minor.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, surveyed the laws of other states as of 1996, when the federal law was enacted.
“Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia set the age of consent at 16 for statutory rape offenses that hinged solely on the age of the participants,” he wrote. “As for the other states, one set the age of consent at 14; two set the age of consent at 15; six set the age of consent at 17; and the remaining ten, including California, set the age of consent at 18.”
Justice Thomas concluded that the federal law, like that in most states, should treat the age of consent as 16, at least where the sex was consensual.
“Absent some special relationship of trust, consensual sexual conduct involving a younger partner who is at least 16 years of age does not qualify as sexual abuse of a minor” under the federal law, he wrote, “regardless of the age differential between the two participants.”
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch did not participate in either decision.
The court agreed to decide whether officials in Ohio had been too aggressive in culling the state’s voter rolls.
Federal laws generally prohibit states from removing people from voter rolls “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” But they make an exception where the state sends voters a confirmation notice to which they do not respond and then do not vote in the next two federal general elections.
Ohio sends confirmation notices to people who fail to vote over a two-year period and then removes them from the rolls if they do not respond and do not vote in the next four years.
A divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that the state had violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by using the failure to vote as a “trigger” for sending the confirmation notices.
In urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, No. 16-980, state officials said the appeals court had done damage the integrity of the voting rolls.
“The Sixth Circuit’s decision makes it harder for states to conduct what all can agree is a critical activity — removing ineligible voters from registration lists — by eliminating one method for doing so,” the officials’ brief said.
Freda Levenson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the state’s “purge of eligible voters had served as a powerful mechanism of voter suppression” and removed “hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls simply because they have exercised their right not to vote in a few elections.”
But Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer with the Heritage Foundation, said Ohio’s procedures were “essential to election integrity.”
“The Sixth Circuit’s total misinterpretation of federal law damages the ability of election officials to maintain the accuracy and security of their voter rolls,” he said.