High court rulings shield police from suits

Judges told to support officers in questionable arrests, shooting cases

December 14, 2004|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In a pair of victories for law enforcement yesterday, the Supreme Court made it harder to sue police for wrongly shooting a fleeing suspect or for arresting a motorist on false charges.

In both instances, the justices said the courts should give police officers the benefit of the doubt and not allow them to be sued for doing their jobs.

The decisions reversed rulings of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the police violated the rights of the suspects by subjecting them to an "unreasonable seizure."

Nearly 20 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that police may not use "deadly force" to stop a fleeing felon, except when the officer has good reason to believe "the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others."

Applying that rule has proved to be difficult, for police and for courts.

The Washington state case of Brosseau v. Haugen fell along what the Supreme Court called "the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force."

Because it was not a clear-cut case of a wrongful shooting, the justices in an 8-1 decision ruled for the police officer and threw out the lawsuit against her.

On Feb. 21, 1999, Officer Rochelle Brosseau of Puyallup, Wash., near Tacoma, went to a home to arrest Kenneth Haugen, who was accused of selling drugs and stealing tools from a co-worker. Haugen hopped into his Jeep and fumbled with the keys. Brosseau ordered him to stop, drew her gun and smashed a hole in a window.

But when Haugen began to pull away, Brosseau shot him, hitting him under an arm. He sued the officer, alleging that the shooting was "unreasonable seizure" in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

A federal judge in Washington dismissed his claim, but the 9th Circuit revived it two years ago in a 2-1 ruling and said a jury should decide whether the shooting was an unreasonable use of force.

Judge William Fletcher pointed out that Haugen did not have a gun and was not charged with a violent crime, and there was no evidence that his flight presented a threat to others.

In dissent, Judge Ronald Gould said "the majority's sweeping position ... promises an easy escape to any felon willing to threaten innocent lives by driving recklessly."

Five appellate judges who disagreed with the panel's decision urged the full 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling.

When it did not, lawyers for Brosseau appealed to the Supreme Court. The attorneys general in 16 states and several police groups urged the court to reverse the 9th Circuit.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court justices threw out Haugen's suit and said the officer deserved to be shielded, even if her actions might have been incorrect.

"Quality immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted," the court wrote.

Brousseau saw Haugen as "a disturbed felon, set on avoiding capture" who might well have plowed his car into others in his path, the court said.

Only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.

In the second ruling, the court shielded another Washington state officer for having wrongly arrested a motorist for tape-recording a traffic stop.

Sgt. Gerald Devenpeck and a second officer stopped Jerome Alford based on the suspicion that he was impersonating an officer. When they saw Alford taping them, they arrested him on a charge of violating their privacy.

A state court threw out that charge, saying it was a legal to tape such a roadside encounter. Alford sued the officers for false arrest.

Although the 9th Circuit upheld this suit, the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision, sided with the officers.

Because the officers had probable cause to arrest the motorist on other grounds, they cannot be sued, the court said.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who began chemotherapy for thyroid cancer in November, took no part in that decision. He will rule in all the cases heard in December, the court announced.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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