Thursday, October 1, 2009

Police cannot run down fleeing suspect with police car

The police can use some force, if necessary, to arrest someone. This is why some excessive force cases against the police don't make it to trial. They get dismissed because the judge decides the force was reasonable under the circumstances. The question today is whether the police can hit a fleeing suspect with a police car in order to seize him.

The case is Hartman v. County of Nassau, decided on October 1. Hartman was running away from the police. He was wanted for a misdemeanor charge and he did not have a weapon. Although the court ruling does not provide factual detail, it appears that the police officer tried to catch Hartman with his police car. Here is the issue, as Nassau County's lawyer frames it:

In this case, defendants contend that a reasonable officer would not have known, based on general Fourth Amendment principles and prior case law, that Officer Snelders could not terminate Hartman’s on-foot escape by hitting him with a car.

The Court of Appeals says that Hartman has enough evidence to win the case if the jury believes his version of events: "at the time of Officer Snelders’s allegedly illegal conduct it was not reasonable to believe that Hartman posed a danger to the officers or the public. At that time, Hartman was running away from the officers on foot, he was wanted only on misdemeanor charges, and there was no evidence that Hartman then possessed a weapon."

The summary order in this case does not provide detail that would explain exactly what happened. The district court opinion is found at 2008 WL 1923127 (EDNY April 28, 2008). Summarizing the evidence, the district court says that Hartman led the police on a car chase and then he got out of the car and tried to run away. The police wanted Hartman on a domestic violence charge, and they regarded him as dangerous, though there was no evidence that he was carrying a weapon and he denies threatening the police. This must have been quite a scene in suburban Nassau County. Here is what happened next:

After a brief pursuit, plaintiff stopped his vehicle on Allan Avenue, in a residential neighborhood, exited the car, and walked back toward the driver's side of the police vehicle. Again, plaintiff allegedly threatened the officers verbally before returning to his vehicle. Rather than unholstering his weapon, Officer Snelders drove the police vehicle slowly toward plaintiff as plaintiff moved towards the front of his vehicle. The officer contends that when he saw plaintiff place his hand in his waistband and then remove it, the officer “gunned his engine and cut the wheel to the right,” striking plaintiff with the right front side of the police car. The officer conceded that it was his intention to hit plaintiff with the car. After the officers' vehicle struck plaintiff, running over his legs, the police vehicle came to rest on the front lawn of one of the homes on Allan Avenue.

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