Students File Suit Against University and Police Over Pepper Spray Incident

WTO protests in Seattle November 30 1999Nineteen students and alumni from the University of California at Davis have filed a lawsuit in federal court against various university administrators and police officials, including Chancellor Linda Katehi and Police Lieutenant John Pike. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is assisting them with the suit, which includes claims of federal civil rights violations and California constitutional and statutory violations. Their claims arise from the now-infamous incident, captured on video and posted across the internet, in which Lieutenant Pike shot pepper spray at point-blank range at people involved in the Occupy protests last November. Although the lawsuit primarily addresses alleged violations of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, injuries sustained in the incident are highly relevant to their case.

The incident occurred on November 18, 2011. Although the specific course of events is still a matter of debate, video footage shows Lieutenant Pike and other police officers spraying pepper spray at a group of seated protesters from a distance of only a few feet. The protesters were seated in a close group on the ground and were not armed. Lieutenant Pike and Police Chief Annette Spicuzza were suspended with pay shortly after the incident and reportedly remain on suspension.

The university administration appointed a task force to investigate the matter. We reported in this Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog last month that the task force had decided not to release its findings until at least February. Now the task force has reportedly announced that it will continue to withhold its findings into March.

The plaintiffs, all of whom were participants in the protest on November 18, filed suit on February 22, 2012. The lawsuit seeks various declarations from the court regarding the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and the defendants’ violations thereof, as well as compensatory and punitive damages from the police officers involved. Plaintiffs also demand changes to unviersity policies related to responding to protests. They claim injuries related to the pepper spray and arrests, including “burning eyes, faces and skin,” and injuries related to the zip ties used to cuff their hands.

Plaintiffs allege that university police were using “military grade” pepper spray. Manufacturer’s instructions for the type of pepper spray used indicates a minimum safe distance of six feet to avoid serious injury. Plaintiffs allege that the police were standing much closer to the protesters on November 18 when they sprayed them. This amounted to a violation of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, plaintiffs say in their complaint, but it also caused significant injury and damage.

The main thrust of plaintiffs’ complaint is that the university violated their civil rights and is liable under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which prohibits civil rights violations by the government. They have also asserted several tort claims under California law, including false imprisonment, damage to or destruction of property, unlawful seizure, and failure to provide medical care. Most of these claims require evidence that the defendants acted with intent, meaning that they intended to cause harm with their actions. This is a different standard of proof than in a negligence claim. Plaintiffs could be entitled to recover the same kind of damages as in other personal injury claims, including medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

The Washington, DC injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people injured due to the negligence or tortious actions of others to recover their just compensation. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

Web Resources:

Complaint for Damages for Violation of Civil Rights with Supplemental Claims for Violation of the California State Constitution and Statutes (PDF), U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California. Posted by the ACLU of Northern California.

Video: Police pepper spraying and arresting students at UC Davis (GRAPHIC CONTENT)

More Blog Posts:

Family of Maryland Man Who Died in Police Custody Dismisses Suit Against Police, May Still Sue Hospital, Maryland Accident Law Blog, February 27, 2012
Legislator Awarded $50,000 in Suit for Damages Caused by Tight Handcuffs, Maryland Accident Law Blog, January 2, 2012
Federal Lawsuit Against ICE Accuses Anne Arundel County Police of Police Brutality During 2008 Immigration Raid in Maryland, Maryland Accident Law Blog, August 11, 2011
Photo credit: By Steve Kaiser from Seattle, US (WTO protests 10Uploaded by nesnad) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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