In a pair of victories for law enforcement, the Supreme Court yesterday made it harder to sue police for wrongly shooting a fleeing suspect or for arresting a motorist on charges...
WASHINGTON In a pair of victories for law enforcement, the Supreme Court yesterday made it harder to sue police for wrongly shooting a fleeing suspect or for arresting a motorist on charges that later fall apart, so long as officers had a second, valid reason for the detention.
In both of the Washington state cases, 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.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that police cannot 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 difficult, for police and courts.
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The Washington state case of Brosseau v. Haugen fell along what the Supreme Court called “the hazy border” governing the use of force.
On Feb. 21, 1999, Officer Rochelle Brosseau of Puyallup shot Kenneth Haugen as he fled in his Jeep to avoid being arrested on drug charges and for questioning in a burglary in Puyallup. Haugen pleaded guilty to fleeing police but filed suit claiming a civil-rights violation.
He suffered a punctured lung in the shooting but recovered.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a jury should decide whether the shooting was an unreasonable use of force. But the Supreme Court’s 8-1 opinion said that although “Brosseau’s actions fell in the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force,” justices were not clear enough to open her up to a lawsuit.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a dissent that the officer was out of bounds in shooting a suspect who had not threatened anyone, and that it should be left to a jury to decide if the officer should have to pay damages.
In the second case, the court ruled that police have authority to arrest suspects on charges that later fall apart, so long as officers have a second, valid reason for the detention.
The 8-0 ruling sets aside a 9th Circuit ruling in favor of Jerome Alford. Two Washington State Patrol officers had arrested him for tape recording their conversation during a traffic stop in November 1997.
During the traffic stop, Alford told the officers he had case law showing the taping was legal, but police arrested him anyway partly for the separate reason, which they did not tell him, that he appeared to be impersonating a police officer.
The 9th Circuit said the arrest was improper, ruling that the separate charges were not sufficiently “closely related” to the initial offense for which he was arrested. But in an opinion yesterday by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court disagreed.
Scalia reasoned that the Fourth Amendment holds an arrest to be lawful if it was “reasonable” given all the facts at the time. Thus, even though officers were wrong about the tape-recording charge, the suspicious circumstances in which he appeared to be impersonating an officer could justify the arrest, he said.
Scalia also noted that a ruling to the contrary would deter officers from providing reasons for their arrest, as they did in Alford’s case, to avoid having their grounds challenged later if they were proved wrong. Under Washington state law, officers are not required to state the reasons for an arrest.
In other developments:
Chief justice: The court said yesterday that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has been undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, will not vote in cases heard in November, unless the other justices are deadlocked. He intends to take part in deciding cases that were heard in December.
Death penalty: The court ruled 8-0 that Florida death-row inmate Joe Elton Nixon should not get a new trial, even though his lawyer conceded the man’s guilt at trial without his explicit consent.