Monday, August 29, 2011
Court Revives Excessive Force Claim Against Sheriff’s Department
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A probation officer who was pepper sprayed after he refused a deputy sheriff’s order to sit in his truck while the officer wrote out a citation for not wearing a seatbelt can sue for use of excessive force, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The panel reinstated Mark Young’s Fourth Amendment and negligence causes of action, although it upheld a grant of summary judgment to the defendants on a claim of false imprisonment.
“[B]ecause we conclude that the use of intermediate force is unreasonable when an officer has detained a suspect for minor infractions and the suspect clearly poses no threat to the officer or the public safety, we reverse as to Young’s excessive force and negligence claims,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court.
The suit stems from a February 2007 stop of Young’s vehicle by Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Wells.
“Young, a 46-year-old African-American probation officer, was driving his truck to the gym, wearing workout clothes and enjoying a snack of broccoli and tomato, when Deputy Wells pulled him over for driving with an unfastened seatbelt. An audio recording of the exchange that followed indicates that Wells informed Young of the basis for the traffic stop, and that Young conceded not only that he had failed to fasten his seatbelt, but also that his car was missing both a side-mirror and a rear license plate.
“Young provided Wells with his driver’s license and proof of insurance, but was unable to immediately find his vehicle registration. Wells told Young to continue searching for the registration and returned to his motorcycle to begin writing Young’s citation.
“When Young found his registration, he exited his truck carrying both the registration and his vegetables, walked to Wells’s motorcycle, and handed Wells the registration. Wells took the registration and ordered Young to ‘just have a seat in the truck.’ Young declined to do so, stating, ‘I don’t feel like sitting in my truck, man.’ Instead, Young walked past his truck, sat on the sidewalk curb, and resumed eating his broccoli.”
The deputy told Young several times to get back in the truck, and Young repeated that he did not want to do so. Wells explained that the quicker Young got back in the truck, the quicker the officer could write the ticket.
Young alleged that Wells approached him from behind while he was on the curb and used the pepper spray. Wells wrote in his incident report that Young swore at him, but Reinhardt said in a footnote that no such statement appears in the audio transcript of the incident.
Young said he tried to get away from the spray, repeatedly telling Wells that Young was “an officer of the law.” Wells, he said, responded to his protests by drawing his baton and striking him a number of times.
Wells asserted in his motion for summary judgment that he thought Young was going to assault him, and perhaps planned to throw the broccoli at him to create a distraction before hitting him. A second deputy eventually arrived on the scene and handcuffed Young, who accused Wells of hitting him again with the baton after he was handcuffed.
When he complained of the handcuffs being on too tightly, the second officer told him “that’s part of not going along with the program,” according to Young.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central District of California granted summary judgment to all defendants.
But Reinhardt reasoned that while the deputies had probable cause to arrest Young for disobeying a lawful command to sit in his vehicle while a citation was being written, and thus cannot be sued for false imprisonment, there was a triable issue as to whether the force used was reasonable.
The use of pepper spray and batons, the judge explained, is considered “intermediate force” that can only be justified by legitimate safety concerns.
“...no safety concern whatsoever appear to have justified Wells’s decision to approach a sitting Young from behind and pepper spray him, and Wells’s declaration that his baton strikes were justified by a reasonable fear for his safety—an argument that he has not advanced in defending this appeal—would, at most, suffice to raise a jury question as to whether his use of force was justified by an immediate threat to his safety,” the jurist wrote.
The case is Young v. County of Los Angeles, 09-56372.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company