Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, October 18, 2007


Page 1


Court Eliminates Instructional Requirement in Excessive Force Cases


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


District courts presiding over excessive force claims against law enforcement officers need only to instruct the jury to consider the reasonableness of the action, and are not required to give a separate deadly force instruction, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

Upholding a verdict rejecting Elizabeth M. Acosta’s civil rights complaint against the City of San Diego and others, the court ruled that U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns of the Southern District of California did not err by not giving the separate instruction to the jury because a recent U.S. Supreme Court case overruled Ninth Circuit precedent requiring such instruction.

Judge Alex Kozinski said that the Supreme Court’s decision in Scott v. Harris (2007) 127 S. Ct. 1769, which held that the only relevant standard in an excessive force claim was whether an officer’s actions were reasonable, foreclosed Acosta’s argument that Burns should also have instructed the jury as to deadly force.

Altercation at Stadium

Acosta filed the action in 2002 after an altercation with security guards and police in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.  Her complaint alleged that the city, the officers, and the security guards and their employer committed various violations of her rights, including unconstitutional use of deadly force under the Fourth Amendment.

Witnesses testified that Acosta was physically removed from Murphy’s Club, a bar in the stadium, by bouncers.  The bouncers notified stadium security, but when she refused to show the guards identification or accompany them to the security office, San Diego police officers intervened.

One of the officers told Acosta that she had been ejected from the stadium and repeatedly advised her that she would be arrested if she did not leave.  Instead of complying, according ot the testimony, Acosta kicked the officer and a security guard, and the officer placed her in a carotid restraint hold.

Acosta became compliant without losing consciousness and was handcuffed.  However, she began kicking again, so Hill slammed her to the ground and tied her legs together. 

She was then taken to the holding area by two other officers.

At trial, Burns gave the jury an excessive force instruction based on a reasonableness standard, but did not give a separate deadly force instruction.

The jury found for the defendants.

Precedent Overruled

On appeal, Kozinski agreed with the district judge that the deadly force instruction was unnecessary.  He wrote that although the Ninth Circuit had previously held in Monroe v. City of Phoenix (2001) 248 F.3d 851 that such an instruction was required, the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Scott had overturned this requirement.

Citing the Scott opinion, Kozinski said that there is no special Fourth Amendment standard for unconstitutional deadly force, so the only relevant determination was whether the police officers’ actions were reasonable.

“Here, the jury was given an excessive force instruction and found for Officer Hill,” he wrote.  “[I]t must therefore have determined that the officer acted reasonably.  Under Scott, that is the end of the inquiry.”

The court also ruled in a separate, unpublished memorandum that the police officers did not violate Acosta’s Fourth Amendment rights because they had probable cause to believe she had committed a crime in their presence; that Acosta did not produce sufficient evidence of unlawful intent to survive summary judgment on claims of retaliation or malicious prosecution; that Burns had not abused his discretion by clarifying cross-examination questions and refusing to give a “group attack” jury instruction; that the city’s alleged failure to train officers adequately and require fitness standards did not amount to deliberate indifference; and that all of Acosta’s claims against the security guards and their employer, Elite Show Services, Inc., similarly lacked merit.

Kozinski was joined in his opinion by Judge Richard C. Tallman and U.S. District Judge Brian E. Sandoval of the District of Nevada, sitting by designation.

The case is Acosta v. Hill, No. 05-56575.


Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company