Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Officers get qualified immunity in excessive force case

The Court of Appeals has dismissed an excessive force claim against the City of Long Beach on the basis that the police officers reasonably believed they were complying with the Constitution when they restrained a suspect in the course of a possible domestic violence incident.

The case is Hodge v. City of Long Beach, a summary order decided on June 20. The district court denied the officers' motion for summary judgment. Normally, that means the case goes to trial to resolve disputed factual issues. But in Section 1983 cases, the defendants can appeal right away if they claim qualified immunity from liability. In excessive force cases, these defendants often find a sympathetic ear in the Second Circuit. That's what happened here.

As the Second Circuit summarizes the case,

The plaintiff claims that the officers spun him around with a forearm, grabbed his neck, put him in a bear hug, and pulled his arms behind his back as they attempted to handcuff him, causing “injuries and bruises to his back, and abrasion on his arms and neck, and [rendering him] unable to swallow.” He concedes that the incident “happened quickly” and that he was never forced to the ground.

In assessing excessive force claims, courts consider the severity of the crimes that brought the police into contact with the plaintiff in the first instance. As this was a domestic dispute which "tend[s] to be 'combustible'" (as shown by broken glass and a bloody shirt), the police had some leeway in controlling the situation. Courts also consider whether the plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the officers, another factor that weighs in the City's favor, as plaintiff would not take his hands from his pockets. We also ask whether suspect was actively resisting arrest. Here, plaintiff "displayed defiant resistance, abruptly turning and walking away from the officers." Under the circumstances, Hodge cannot win the case because the officers have qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Winter and McLaughlin) reasons that "because of the plaintiff’s defiance and the indicia of a potential incident of domestic violence, it would not be 'clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.'”

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