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Court Sides With Police Over Deadly Force

Date Posted to Site: 12/14/2004

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court refused Monday to clarify when police can use
deadly force to stop fleeing criminal suspects but said a lower court got it
wrong in allowing a lawsuit against an officer in Washington state who shot
a burglary suspect.

Law enforcement groups and 16 states had encouraged the court to use the
officer's appeal to clarify protection for officers from lawsuits when they
injure or kill fleeing felons.

Instead, the court issued an unsigned opinion that found only that the 9th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web sites) in San Francisco erred in
ruling that the officer, Rochelle Brosseau, clearly violated the suspect's
constitutional rights.

Brosseau shot Kenneth Haugen in 1999 as he fled in his Jeep to avoid being
arrested for drug charges and for questioning in a burglary in Puyallup,
Wash., a city of about 35,000 people in the Puget Sound region 10 miles east
of Tacoma. Haugen pleaded guilty to fleeing police but then filed suit
claiming a civil rights violation. He suffered a punctured lung in the
shooting but recovered.

The 9th Circuit, which is frequently overturned by the Supreme Court, said
Brosseau should face a jury.

"Officer Brosseau shot an unarmed man in the back as he attempted to drive
away from her. In these circumstances, the officer's actions should be
second-guessed," justices were told in a filing by Haugen's attorney, Bonnie
Robin-Vergeer of the Public Citizen Litigation Group.

On the other side, the officer's actions were praised by law enforcement
groups and states.

"Officer Brosseau should be commended for her selfless bravery in the face
of imminent danger to herself, and those residing in the quiet residential
neighborhoods of Puyallup," justices were told by lawyers in the brief on
behalf of 16 states.

The Supreme Court's 8-1 opinion said that "Brosseau's actions fell in the
hazy border between excessive and acceptable force" but were not clear
enough to open her up to a lawsuit.

Three justices - Antonin Scalia (news - web sites), Ruth Bader Ginsburg
(news - web sites) and Stephen Breyer (news - web sites) - said the court
should have used the case to make clear how courts should handle such

Justice John Paul Stevens (news - web sites) 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 she should have to
pay damages.

The case is Brosseau v. Haugen, 03-1261.

In a second similar case, justices ordered a lower court to reconsider
whether officers can be sued when they tackle someone and knock the person
to the ground during an arrest.

At issue is the claim of an officer in Xenia, Ohio, that he should be
shielded from a lawsuit over his handling of the arrest of a woman.

Police went to the home of Cheryl Lyons in 1998 to investigate an allegation
that Lyons' teenage daughter had assaulted someone. The woman claimed that
she did not invite officers into her house and argued with one of them.

Another officer, summoned to assist, ran into the house and threw Lyons to
the ground in a football-like tackle, she claimed in a lawsuit. Justices
threw out a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals that a jury should be allowed to consider if officer Matthew Foubert
went too far.

The case is Foubert v. Lyons, 03-1622.

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