Ninth Circuit Revives Octogenarian’s Suit Over Detention

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Ninth Circuit Revives Octogenarian’s Suit Over Detention

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a lower court’s ruling in favor of two police officers who were accused of using excessive force in a traffic stop of an elderly Black woman, allowing her to revive her lawsuit. The court’s holding clarifies when police officers may cross the line and become liable for their actions when detaining a suspect. The Helbraun Law Firm represents victims of excessive force in the San Francisco area as they seek justice and compensation for their ordeal.

Excessive force depends on the specifics of your situation and whether the officer could have reasonably perceived you as a threat. Even some use of force could be excessive depending on your situation. Attorney David M. Helbraun has held local police departments accountable when they have violated civil rights during stops.

Reach out to the Helbraun Law Firm today to discuss your case with an attorney who is committed to fight for your civil rights. If you or a loved one has been the victim of police misconduct, we can help. Our San Francisco police misconduct attorneys stand for justice for those who may not be listened to on their own. Call us today to review your case.

Police Stopped an 83-Year-Old Black Woman on a Mistaken Belief

Elise Brown was driving in her car and was 83 years old at the time of this incident. Ms. Brown is a Black woman and, as the Ninth Circuit’s decision emphasizes, she is 5’2” and weighs 117 pounds. Two San Bernardino police officers stopped her vehicle and detained her on suspicion of driving a stolen car. There was a “system glitch” that caused officers to identify the car she was driving as stolen. Ms. Brown owned two cars, and she had reported the other one as stolen. Essentially, because of the officer’s mistake, they believed that she stole what was her own car.

After ordering Ms. Brown out of her car, the police officers pointed guns at her, forcing the octogenarian to her knees with her hands in the air. In spite of the fact that she did not have a weapon, the officers handcuffed her, subjecting her to terror and humiliation in front of people who were present and watching what was happening.

The Woman Sued Police Over the Arrest and Use of Force

Ms. Brown filed a lawsuit against two police officers and the City of San Bernardino for the incident, claiming that she was:

  • Subject to an illegal arrest because officers lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to detain her
  • The victim of excessive force under federal civil rights law

The lower court had granted summary judgment to the police officers on both allegations. Ms. Brown appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The appeals court reversed the lower court’s finding that the officers were protected by qualified immunity for the excessive force allegations while affirming the summary judgment for the officers on the illegal arrest grounds.

When Police Officers Cross the Line of Excessive Force

The appeals court evaluated the officers’ actions in light of three considerations that are used in excessive force cases. The court looks at:

  • The severity of the potential crime
  • Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officers
  • Whether the suspect is cooperating or resisting arrest

The court must decide whether the officers’ actions were objectively reasonable in light of the circumstances and these factors.

Here, the court determined that it was objectively unreasonable for the police officers to handcuff Ms. Brown and force her to the ground. Even though the officers may have had grounds to remove Ms. Brown from her car and ascertain whether she posed a threat, a reasonable officer should have determined that an unarmed woman of her age and size was not a danger to the officers’ safety.

The Ninth Circuit explicitly said that, when the factors listed above do not support the use of force, any use of force is unconstitutional. Thus, the officers did not have qualified immunity for their actions at the scene of the traffic stop because Ms. Brown was “outnumbered, unarmed, and compliant.”

The appeals court did uphold the summary judgment for the illegal arrest allegations. The Ninth Circuit upheld the finding of qualified immunity because reasonable officers could have disagreed about whether the arrest was necessary because they had a confirmed license plate match here. The officers did not know that the system had made an error.

Contact a San Francisco Police Misconduct Attorney Today

Call the Helbraun Law Firm to learn whether you have strong legal grounds to take action against the police when they have violated your rights. We are your voice when you have been mistreated by police. You can message us online or call us today at 415-982-4000 to speak with an attorney to discuss your case.

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