Supreme Court Makes It Tougher to Sue Police

In a wrongful arrest and a questionable shooting, the justices say officers should be given the benefit of the doubt.

By David G. Savage

Los Angeles Times

December 14, 2004

WASHINGTON — In a pair of victories for law enforcement, the Supreme Court on Monday made it harder to sue police for a questionable shooting of 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.

Monday's decisions reversed rulings of the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th 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 proven to be difficult for police and courts.

The Washington state case of Brosseau vs. 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 ruled for the police officer in an 8-1 decision 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.

When Haugen began to pull away, Brosseau shot him in the back. He sped from the driveway but pulled off the road after half a block and passed out. He sued the officer, alleging that the shooting was an "unreasonable seizure" in violation of the 4th Amendment.

The federal courts have been split over whether a jury should hear Haugen's lawsuit.

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 A. 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. Judge Stephen Reinhardt joined him.

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. Attorneys general in 16 states and several police groups urged the court to reverse the 9th Circuit.

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

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

Only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.

"In my judgment, the answer to the constitutional question presented by this case is clear: Under the 4th Amendment, it was objectively unreasonable for Officer Brosseau to use deadly force against Kenneth Haugen in an attempt to prevent his escape," he wrote.

In a statement released by her attorney, the officer said she was gratified by the ruling. "On the day I was forced to shoot Mr. Haugen, I believed he was an immediate threat to people nearby, including a little 3-year old girl. I was doing everything in my power to stop him," Brosseau said. "These kinds of decisions are made in split seconds, in dangerous surroundings, then scrutinized for years in court."

Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, a lawyer for Haugen, said the court should have allowed the suit to go before a jury. "We believed if someone is not dangerous, you don't shoot to kill him," she said.

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 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 the charge, saying it was a legal to tape such an encounter. Alford sued the officers for false arrest.

Although the 9th Circuit upheld the suit, the high court in an 8-0 decision sided with the officers Monday. Because the officers had probable cause to arrest Alford 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 the decision. He has not been in court since his illness was announced, and the court said Monday that for cases heard in the first two weeks of November, Rehnquist would vote only if needed to break a tie. But he intended to participate in cases that were heard between Nov. 29 and Dec. 8, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.