WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) refused Monday to clarify when police can use deadly force (search) to stop fleeing criminal suspects but said a lower court got it wrong in allowing a lawsuit against an officer in Washington state who shot a burglary suspect.
Law enforcement groups and 16 states had encouraged the court to use the officer's appeal to clarify protection for officers from lawsuits when they injure or kill fleeing felons.
Instead, the court issued an unsigned opinion that found only that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) in San Francisco erred in ruling that the officer, Rochelle Brosseau (search), clearly violated the suspect's constitutional rights.
Brosseau shot Kenneth Haugen in 1999 as he fled in his Jeep to avoid being arrested for drug charges in Puyallup, Wash., a city of about 35,000 people in the Puget Sound region 10 miles east of Tacoma. Haugen pleaded guilty to fleeing police but then filed suit claiming a civil rights violation. He suffered a punctured lung in the shooting but recovered.
The 9th Circuit, which is frequently overturned by the Supreme Court, said Brosseau should face a jury.
"Officer Brosseau shot an unarmed man in the back as he attempted to drive away from her. In these circumstances, the officer's actions should be second-guessed," justices were told in a filing by Haugen's attorney, Bonnie Robin-Vergeer of the Public Citizen Litigation Group (search).
On the other side, the officer's actions were praised by law enforcement groups and states.
"Officer Brosseau should be commended for her selfless bravery in the face of imminent danger to herself, and those residing in the quiet residential neighborhoods of Puyallup," justices were told by lawyers in the brief on behalf of 16 states.
The Supreme Court's 8-1 opinion said that "Brosseau's actions fell in the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force" but were not clear enough to open her up to a lawsuit.
Three justices — Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — said the court should have used the case to make clear how courts should handle such lawsuits.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a dissent that the officer was out of bounds in shooting a suspect who had not threatened anyone, and that it should be left to a jury to decide if she should have to pay damages.
The case is Brosseau v. Haugen, 03-1261.
In a second similar case, justices ordered a lower court to reconsider whether officers can be sued when they tackle someone and knock the person to the ground during an arrest.
At issue is the claim of an officer in Xenia, Ohio, that he should be shielded from a lawsuit over his handling of the arrest of a woman.
Police went to the home of Cheryl Lyons in 1998 to investigate an allegation that Lyons' teenage daughter had assaulted someone. The woman claimed that she did not invite officers into her house and argued with one of them.
Another officer, summoned to assist, ran into the house and threw Lyons to the ground in a football-like tackle, she claimed in a lawsuit. Justices threw out a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a jury should be allowed to consider if officer Matthew Foubert went too far.
The case is Foubert v. Lyons, 03-1622.