©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On March 21, 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Anderson v. City of Bainbridge Island, et al. [i], in which they held that officers acted reasonably in briefly pointing their guns at a vehicle pursuit suspect. While the case seems relatively simple and is an unpublished opinion, it does illustrate the general practice by the courts to be cautious about second-guessing an officer’s assessment of danger in any given situation. The facts of Anderson are as follows:
Sometime after midnight on October 28, 2007, Officers Christopherson and Roche were parked on Bainbridge Island when they observed a vehicle, traveling at a high speed, pass a van in a no-passing zone. The police officers turned on their emergency lights to follow. The vehicle then led them on a high-speed chase at 85 m.p.h., in a 55 m.p.h. zone, until the vehicle’s driver turned the headlights off and pulled into an industrial parking lot. The driver of the vehicle, Anderson, later declared that he had then parked behind a trailer to hide from the officers. The officers called for backup protection, and they drove into the parking lot after the requested two additional units arrived. As the officers drove into the parking lot, they saw someone approaching them on foot with his hands in the air and a driver’s license in his right hand. The officers then drove to within fifteen to thirty feet of Anderson, and placed a police car spotlight on him. The police exited their vehicles, pointed their guns at Anderson’s chest, ordered him to turn around and get on the ground. Their guns were pointed at him for approximately thirty seconds before he was handcuffed and arrested. [ii]
Anderson sued the City of Bainbridge Island and the individual officers for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they pointed guns at him as he approached with his hands up and his driver’s license in hand. The district court granted summary judgment to all defendants and Anderson appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Anderson alleged that the force used, particularly pointing their guns at him, was excessive because he was not a threat and the officers recognized him as the son of a co-worker of the officers that were involved in the pursuit. Thus, the court stated that the issue was whether, after the early morning pursuit, the officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner by considering Anderson to be a threat and pointing their guns at him briefly.
The court then noted two legal principles from the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor [iii], the lead case for evaluating the reasonableness of uses of force by law enforcement. The principles are as follows:
The legal standard that governs the case is whether the officers acted ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. [iv]
The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. [v]
The court then applied these two principles to Anderson’s allegation that the police recognized him as the son of another police officer. The court stated:
In this case, the district court found that the officers used the appropriate level of force to secure Anderson given the totality of the circumstances. As the district court said, “Anderson was driving recklessly, [and] attempt[ed] to elude police . . . [by driving] without headlights in [a] dark, commercial park.” Anderson created a dangerous situation by attempting to evade police in a late-night, high-speed chase. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 384, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007) (reasoning that the parties’ relative culpability—who created the dangerous situation—is relevant to determining objective reasonableness). Accepting Anderson’s version of events, the officers trained their guns on him for only thirty seconds, just long enough to determine that he was unarmed and to arrest him…The district court correctly held that the force used in this case was reasonable under the circumstances. [vi]
Thus, in light of the information known by the officers prior to the use of force (that Anderson was involved in a vehicle pursuit), and circumstances faced by the officers at the time they used the force (they located Anderson and undertook his arrest), the court held that the force used (pointing guns for about 30 seconds) was objectively reasonable. This is the case, in spite of any underlying motivation on the part of the officers or facts learned by the officers after the incident had occurred.
Graham v. Connor is the lead case in evaluating uses of force by law enforcement officers. Although not discussed in the Anderson case, in Graham, the United States Supreme Court stated that there are three factors that should be considered when evaluating whether an officers use of force was objectively reasonably. The factors are as follows:
The seriousness of the offense;
Whether the suspect posed a threat to the officer and/or others; and
Whether the suspect was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Thus, officers should clearly articulate, in detail, in their reports sufficient facts to cover these factors from Graham v. Connor, since this is standard by which the courts will ultimately judge an officer should there be a lawsuit.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 10-36140, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 5872 (9th Cir. 2012 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
[iv] Anderson at 4 (citing Graham, 490 U.S. at 397)
[v] Id. (internal citation omitted)
[vi] Id. at 5-6