Court To Rule on Police Culpability
Nov. 14, 2000
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court entered the debate over police brutality Monday, agreeing to clarify when officers can be held legally responsible for using excessive force while making an arrest.
The Clinton administration says a lower court ruling means police officers ``in many cases, may use no force at all'' in arresting someone. The justices agreed to hear the government's bid to throw out an animal-rights activist's lawsuit against an officer who arrested him during a 1994 speech by Vice President Al Gore.
``This case boils down to whether it's going to be a judge or jury who decides whether police used excessive force,'' said attorney J. Kirk Boyd, representing activist Elliot Katz, who was arrested when he unfurled a banner during Gore's speech on a military post.
The justices' decision, expected next year, is likely to be of great importance to police forces nationwide.
High-profile allegations of abuse have been made in recent years against police departments in cities including New York City and Los Angeles. This month, Los Angeles officials agreed to make changes aimed at eliminating brutality and other abuses and to accept an independent monitor of the city's police department.
The court said it will review rulings that would allow a jury to hear Katz's lawsuit against military police officer Donald Saucier.
Saucier, an Army private, was serving as a military policeman at a Sept. 24, 1994, ceremony at the Presidio military post in San Francisco to celebrate the facility's imminent conversion from an Army base to a national recreation area.
Katz, a 60-year-old veterinarian and president of the group In Defense of Animals, had a seat near the speakers' stage. As Gore spoke, Katz unfurled a 4 foot-by-3 foot banner that said ``Please Keep Animal Torture Out of Our National Parks.''
Katz contends in his civil suit that Saucier and another MP grabbed him and escorted him to a military van and ``violently threw'' him inside. He was not hurt, and he later was released without being charged with violating any law or regulation.
A federal trial judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided a jury should hear Katz' argument that Saucier violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures. They said Saucier was not entitled to ``qualified immunity'' from being sued.
The appeals court said the test for deciding whether such claims can go to trial is whether the force used during an arrest was reasonable, the same test that a jury later would use in deciding the case on its merits.
Justice Department lawyers said the appeals court ``has effectively held that, in cases like this, officers are prohibited from using any force at all to make an arrest.''
The government lawyers said qualified immunity is intended to protect officers from being sued unless they are ``plainly incompetent'' or knowingly violate the law. Courts generally should defer to the ``split-second decisions'' by officers on the street, Justice Department lawyers said.
Boyd, the lawyer representing Katz, said such questions should be decided by a jury, not by a judge who is asked to dismiss a case before trial.
``There will always be brutality issues,'' Boyd said. ``The question is, who's going to decide in a free society whether police have abused their power.''
The Supreme Court last year agreed to resolve the issue in a similar case, but the case was settled out of court.
The case granted review Monday is Saucier v. Katz, 99-1977.
On the Net: For the appeals court ruling: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 9th Circuit.
For the Supreme Court web site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
Presidio of San Francisco: http://www.nps.gov/prsf/