Local Governments Given Shield Against Damage Suits

But High Court Rules Police Have To Knock First In Raid

April 29, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court gave city and county governments a broad legal shield yesterday against damage lawsuits over the hiring of police officers who use excessive force once they are on duty.

To win damages against the government, the majority said, it must be "fairly obvious" to local officials when they hire an employee that he or she was "highly likely" to violate someone's rights in a way that eventually occurred.

The court said the connection between the hiring and the specific injury done "must be strong."

In an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the majority conceded that it was setting a tough legal standard. But the court said it had to do so to ensure that "an ill-considered hiring decision" does not make the local government "liable for an injury that it did not cause."

Justice David H. Souter, who wrote one of two dissenting opinions, said the ruling made it "a virtual categorical impossibility" that a person will be able to win compensation from a local government.

The ruling absolves Bryan County, Okla., from having to pay at least half the $711,302 in civil damages that a jury awarded a woman whose knees were seriously injured during a forcible arrest in 1991 by a sheriff's deputy.

The county was held liable because the deputy had been hired by his great-uncle, the county sheriff, who had sole responsibility for hiring officers. Before hiring his relative, the sheriff had known of the nephew's criminal record, which included assaults, but he said later that he had not closely examined it.

The deputy, Stacy Burns, was new to the sheriff's department when he took part in a traffic stop. With guns drawn, Burns and another deputy ordered the woman and her husband out of the car. The woman did not get out, and Burns yanked her and threw her to the ground, injuring her knees.

The Supreme Court ruled that those injuries could not be traced directly to the hiring decision. Inadequate screening of a potential employee in a single instance, the court ruled, cannot lead to damages unless the hiring officer had clear reasons to anticipate the risk the officer's conduct would pose.

O'Connor's opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices Souter, Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens.

In a second ruling affecting the police, the court ruled unanimously that police may not have blanket authority to force their way into a home to search for evidence of drugs without knocking and announcing themselves at the door.

The decision appeared to be an application of the court's 1995 ruling that the Constitution requires police, in most cases, to announce themselves before carrying out a search warrant at a private home.

The justices, in an opinion by Stevens, overturned a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that police never need to knock and announce their presence when investigating a serious drug crime.

In other actions:

The court upheld, by a 6-3 vote, a Minnesota law that bans a political candidate from appearing on the ballot as a "fusion" entry -- that is, as the nominee of more than one party. Most states have laws similar to Minnesota's.

The court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a federal immigration law that permits some children born out of wedlock in another country to become citizens if the mother is a U.S. citizen, but not if the father is.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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