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Excessive Force Claim Against Police Found Valid

After a series of armed robberies at various businesses in Henderson, Nevada, detectives with the Henderson Police Department (HPD) began surveilling a woman suspected of aiding a man with a recent robbery. 

On January 3, 2017, she left a gas station as a passenger in a car driven by an unidentified man and several plain clothes detectives followed behind.  As they followed, they researched the registered owner of the car and determined it was Daniel Andrews and further determined they had probable cause to arrest him for the string of armed robberies in Henderson. 

Detectives continued following the car with Andrews and the woman as it went to the courthouse in Henderson, parked and the two entered the courthouse.  To enter the courthouse, the two had to pass through a metal detector and x-ray scanner.  One detective followed the pair into the courthouse and monitored their location.  The other detectives waited outside so they could arrest Andrews after he exited because they knew he would be unarmed, having passed through the courthouse metal detectors earlier.

Twenty minutes after entering the courthouse, Andrews and the woman left the courthouse.  Detectives Watford and Lippisch, in plain clothes, slowly walked toward them without identifying themselves.  When Watford was about a foot away from Andrews, he lunged and tackled him to the ground.  Detective Lippisch also jumped at Andrews and the three fell to the ground. 
The detectives’ takedown resulted in an acetabular fracture of Andrews’ hip, which required two surgeries.

After the arrest, Detective Watford prepared a “use of force” report detailing the event.  Several of his supervisors reviewed the report and the video of the arrest and determined that the use of force did not violate HPD policy or warrant further action.

Andrews sued Detectives Watford and Lippisch, as well as the City of Henderson, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim against the detectives and a municipal-liability claim against the City.  Andrews alleged three theories of municipal liability: (1) failure to train; (2) unconstitutional custom, practice or policy; and (3) ratification.

Defendants moved for summary judgment with the detectives arguing they were entitled to qualified immunity and the City arguing that it did not fail to train its officers on the proper use of force or have a policy or custom allowing officers to use excessive force.

The U.S. District Court denied the detectives’ motion for summary judgment raising qualified immunity.  It concluded that there was a genuine factual dispute regarding whether the detectives used objectively reasonable force against Andrews.  It also determined that the law in the Ninth Circuit, of which California is included, under Blankenhorn v. City of Orange (9th Cir., 2007) 485 F. 3d 463, 477, 481, “clearly established” that “force is only justified when there is a need for force” and that it is excessive to “gang tackle” a person “who was suspected of a minor crime, posed no apparent threat to officer safety, and could be found not to have resisted arrest.”  The court further found that the detectives knew Andrews was unarmed, attempted to flee, resisting arrest or committing a crime when they arrested him.  Thus, the district court found “there simply was no clear need for force.”

Defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, which affirmed the U.S. District Court.  The Ninth Circuit held that the officers’ use of force is excessive in violation of the Fourth Amendment when the officers’ action is not objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances.  Williamson v. City of Nat’l City (9th Cir., 2022) 23 F. 4th 1146, 1151.

However, an appeals court, when reviewing a claim of qualified immunity, has jurisdictional power over legal issues only, not factual issues.  This is because “qualified immunity is immunity from suit, not just a defense to liability.”  In other words, “a public official may not immediately appeal a fact-related dispute about a pretrial record, namely whether or not the evidence in the pretrial record was sufficient to show a genuine issue of fact for trial.”  Estate of Anderson v. Marsh (9th Cir., 2021) 985 F. 3d 726, 731.

Here, the Ninth Circuit looked to the facts determined by the district court and found there was no error in its factual evaluation, further adding that the officers gave no verbal warning to Andrews and did not identify themselves, which meant their use of force was not warranted by the government interests.  Therefore, the degree of force used against Andrews was substantial and violated his Fourth Amendment right against such force.

We present this summary because this law controls in California although the events took place in Nevada.

For more information about qualified immunity of police, please click on the following articles:
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