Sunday, September 12, 2010

Northern California Judges allow several police brutality complaints to go to trial

In a series of decisions released on Wednesday, several federal judges have denied summary judgment in police brutality cases.  To prevail in an excessive force complaint under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 the plaintiff must show that the officer was "objectively unreasonable" in choosing to use force.  As related to the Fourth Amendment, the officer must have probable cause to search or seize the plaintiff or his property.  As related to the Eighth Amendment, the officer must be "objectively reasonable" in the force used against the plaintiff to avoid liability.  When the police officer moves for summary judgment, the Court must believe the plaintiff's rendition of the facts.

In Al-Hizbullahi v. Bleisner, the only defendant who was in the case at summary judgment was Jean Woodford who was the warden at Pelican Bay State Prison from 2000 to 2004 where the plaintiff, an inmate complained of unfair treatment.  Judge Maxime M. Chesney found no allegation that Woodford was reasonable for the mistreatment, so she granted summary judgment for the warden.

In Beckum v. City of East Palo Alto, the police walked up to a barbershop when they claim a man in the barber's chair jumped up and ran into the back room.  The plaintiff claimed that the police entered his barbershop, asked him who just ran by, he said he didn't see anyone and was arrested for obstructing an investigation.  A little later a man existed the barbershop bathroom and when the police went into the bathroom they found cocaine hidden inside.  The barber was never charged, but claimed he was injured while being handcuffed.  Magistrate Howard Lloyd denied summary judgment for the officer stating that allegations of police brutality are almost always fact-based inquiries for the jury, and that Beckum's telling of the events shows a lack of probable cause raising two issues for trial.

In Bull v. City and County of San Francisco, a class of prisoners claimed that the jail's policy of strip-searching certain classes of inmates at the SF jails was per se unconstitutional.  The trial court said it was not, and the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court en banc. Now on remand, Judge Charles Breyer denied summary judgment for SF stating there were still a class of plaintiffs strip searched a second time (before being placed in administrative segregation for example) who had claims that were not decided by the Ninth Circuit decision.

In Fleming v. Clark, an elderly man who suffered from gout grew marijuana in his backyard which was spotted by a police officer who obtained a search warrant.  The officer arrived at the house and told him to open the metal grate door.  When he came to the door he was injured by officers trying to break the door down.  The officers said they held the occupants of the house at gunpoint for five minutes while they did a quick search of the house.  The occupants said it was 45 minutes and, upon producing a permit to grow the marijuana, the officers left without filing charges.  Magistrate Bernard Zimmerman dismissed the search claims by noting that there is no database of who is allowed to grow marijuana and law enforcement could be hindered if officers had to inquire in order to get a warrant because by the time they returned the plants may be gone.  However, the unnecessary force claims would go to the jury.  The magistrate noted that depending on whose telling of events is more believable, the jury could go either way.

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