Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Plaintiff Was Held for 10 Minutes With Machine Gun, Other Weapons, Pointed at Him; Qualified Immunity Applies Because Precedents Did Not Deter Conduct—Opinion
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed an order denying summary judgment to four San Diego police officers and two commanding officers who held a man at gunpoint for about 10 minutes on the balcony of his home based on mistaking him for a person of a similar description.
On Sept. 9, 2014, police received a call alerting them to domestic violence in progress in Apartment 5 of a building, with a 26-year-old African American male allegedly holding his girlfriend at gunpoint. Police mistook Demetrice Sightler, who lived in Apartment 3, for the alleged aggressor.
Several officers responded, including a canine unit, with a police helicopter circling overhead. Sightler sued the city and 14 members of the San Diego Police Department, later narrowed to six: David Nisleit, Daniel McClain, Angela Johnson, Jill Hupp, Andrew Longen, and Levi Harbin.
In a March 28, 2018 order, District Court Judge Larry A. Burns of the Southern District of California granted the city’s motion for summary judgment on claims of exercising a policy of excessive force in arresting African Americans, failure to train, and failure to supervise, but denied summary judgment to the members of the police department, finding a lack of qualified immunity.
District Court Decision
“When Demetrice Sightler walked out onto his balcony on a September afternoon, he expected to find his girlfriend. Instead, he found himself surrounded by San Diego police officers with guns drawn. When Sightler asked why police had a machine gun pointed at him, the police said: ‘That’s how we do business, okay?’ A jury, not a judge, needs to decide whether that’s an okay way to conduct business under the Fourth Amendment.”
The judge went on to say:
“A jury may find some officers liable and others not, but the Court finds they were all integral participants. That’s because the core conduct that restricted Sightler’s liberty in an unreasonable way was pointing guns at him. The parties agree Longen, Levin, Johnson, and Hupp all pointed loaded guns at Sightler. Nisleit and McClain didn’t point guns, but as the commanding officers on scene, they failed to order the four officers to lower their guns. There’s also sufficient evidence to find them liable for their inaction in the supervision and control of their subordinates.”
“The Court is reluctant to expose officers to liability when they answer an emergency call under the belief that a fellow citizen has a gun held to her head. At the same time, fellow citizens shouldn’t have to experience the terror of an AR-15 pointed at them for ten minutes on a fall afternoon—especially when they are at home.”
Ninth Circuit Opinion
The Ninth Circuit reversed on Monday in a memorandum opinion. The panel was comprised of Circuit Judges Mark J. Bennett, Sandra S. Ikuta, and Johnnie B. Rawlinson.
Their opinion says that “the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Sightler, plausibly supports that Defendants may have violated his Fourth Amendment rights,” the defendants “are entitled to qualified immunity on all claims” because Sightler did not point to specific precedents that would have alerted the officers to the illegality of their conduct.
Neither Burns nor Sightler pointed to any case where a Fourth Amendment violation was found under similar circumstances, the opinion says, observing:
“Indeed, none of the cases cited by the district court or Sightler involved either a report of a suspect who was armed with a gun and was threatening to kill a person, or a similar serious situation involving dangerous or exigent circumstances. And none involved facts like the present where a reasonable officer could have objectively believed that the plaintiff resembled the suspect’s description. Additionally, none of the cases involved a plaintiff, who not only matched the general description of the suspect, but who was also located in very close physical and temporal proximity to the crime scene.”
The case is Sightler v. Nisleit, 18-55492
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