Articles Posted in Police Brutality

Earlier this year, in a pivotal case regarding the application of damages caps to alleged violations of the Maryland State Constitution by state actors, one Maryland circuit court reduced the damages received by a deceased man’s estate from $11 million to just $400,000.

restrained-624824-mThe Facts of the Case

Back in 2008, the deceased person was on his porch having a drink with a friend when a police officer drove by and suspected the men of drinking alcoholic beverages outside, which was against the law. The officer allegedly drove by twice before getting out of his car and approaching the men. As the men got up and went inside the apartment, the officer followed, using his master key to the apartment complex.

Once inside, accounts of what exactly occurred differ. However, what is known for certain is that one of the two men was killed and his son arrested after he came to his father’s aid.

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Earlier this week in Prince George’s County, a teen was killed when he crashed his dirt bike into a tree after running from police. The family of the teen has recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Prince George’s County, seeking $20 million in damages.

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According to a report by the Washington Post, two teens were riding on a Kawasaki dirt bike in an apartment complex when an officer began to tail them. The officer claims that he suspected the pair were involved in a recent armed robbery. As the officer initiated a traffic stop, the teens fled. The officer pursued the teens across county lines and into Washington DC. Once in DC, the teens crashed the motorcycle into a tree. The driver of the motorcycle died as a result.

The deceased teen’s family is claiming that the officer did not have the authority to pursue the teen, citing to recent changes in Prince George’s County police protocol. Pursuant to police protocol, an officer can only chase a fleeing suspect when he or she suspects the suspect of certain enumerated crimes. While riding a dirt bike on public roads is illegal, it is not one of the crimes listed. Moreover, the officer did not have police authority in the District of Columbia, once the teens entered that jurisdiction.

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Algodones_sand-dune-fence.jpgA series of investigations and lawsuits seek to shed light on shootings by agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency which includes the U.S. Border Patrol (BP), involving Mexican nationals located across the border on Mexican territory. Asserting civil claims over these incidents has proven difficult, both practically and legally. The CBP and related agencies suffer from a lack of transparency, which makes the discovery process difficult. Courts have been reluctant to exercise jurisdiction over claims by foreign nationals, raising questions about jurisdiction and rights when an agent fires a gun on one side of an international border, and the injury occurs on the other side.

According to the Arizona Republic, BP and CBP agents have been involved in at least forty-two fatal uses of force since 2005. Thirty-eight of those deaths occurred near the U.S.-Mexico border. The Republic describes them as varying from “strongly justifiable to highly questionable.” Four BP agents have died in “direct conflicts with aggressors” in roughly the same timeframe.

Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, age sixteen, was shot and killed by BP agents on October 10, 2012. The agents were located in Nogales, Arizona, while Rodriguez was in the Mexican town of the same name. The agents claimed that Rodriguez was throwing rocks at them. Agents are permitted to use deadly force in response to threats, and they treat rocks as a deadly weapon as a matter of policy.

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A DC federal judge granted a plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment in a case alleging that two Metropolitan Police Officers used unreasonable and unnecessary force against him. Jenkins v. District of Columbia, et al, opinion (D.D.C., Dec. 18, 2013). One of the defendants pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor assault in a separate criminal case, served a brief jail sentence, and resigned from the police department. The plaintiff then moved for partial summary judgment as to that defendant’s liability for excessive force. The court found that the factual proffer included in her guilty plea included enough material facts to bar her from denying liability for one of the two alleged assaults.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff encountered Officer Kisha Coley while walking on Georgia Avenue NW during the early morning of March 27, 2010. She ordered him to “move on,” but continued to follow him. They got into a verbal argument, and although the plaintiff says he was not behaving in a threatening manner, she struck him in the back of the head with a metal baton. The plaintiff ran towards a police cruiser driven Officer Rodney Fitts, who ordered the plaintiff against the rear of the vehicle with his hands on the trunk. Officer Coley swung the baton, hitting the plaintiff in the hand and Officer Fitts in the knee. She then hit the plaintiff again with the baton. The plaintiff received treatment for injuries to his head, right wrist, and left hand.

Officer Coley was charged with assaulting the plaintiff and Officer Fitts. She pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor assault counts and was sentenced to six days in jail plus a year of probation. The plaintiff sued Officer Coley, Officer Fitts, and the District of Columbia in D.C. Superior Court. After the case was removed to federal court, the plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment as to Officer Coley’s liability on two causes of action: excessive force in violation of the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, and retaliation in violation of his First Amendment rights.

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Penn_Station.jpgPolice had no duty to assist or protect a civilian who risked his life to stop a killer on a New York subway car, according to the defendant’s arguments in Lozito v. City of New York. The plaintiff sued the city and the NYPD after a suspect wanted for several murders attacked him in view of two officers. Unfortunately, caselaw going up to the U.S. Supreme Court may support the city’s argument, as it pertains to civil liability for failure to prevent or investigate individual crimes. In the absence of a specific duty established by statute, law enforcement is generally not liable to crime victims for such omissions.

The plaintiff, Joseph Lozito, was on a subway train on the morning of Saturday, February 12, 2011, when Maksim Gelman boarded the train at Manhattan’s Penn Station. Gelman was the subject of a citywide manhunt for a crime spree that left four people dead. Gelman pounded on the door of the motorman’s car, where two NYPD officers were stationed as part of the manhunt. Gelman turned and ran towards Lozito when the officers refused to open the door. Using a move he learned from watching mixed martial arts on television, Lozito knocked Gelman to the ground, and the two fought. By the time police officers intervened, Lozito had at least seven knife wounds. Gelman was later sentenced to two hundred years in prison.

Lozito filed suit against the NYPD for failing to protect him. The NYPD’s account of the incident states that Officer Terrance Howell tackled Gelman, but Lozito claims that Howell locked himself and another officer in the motorman’s car. A grand-jury member allegedly told Lozito that Howell admitted to staying put during the attack because he thought Gelman might have a gun. The city’s argument that the NYPD does not owe a duty of protection to any individual, but rather to the public at large, is fairly well-settled as the “public duty doctrine.”

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Yemen-map.jpgA wrongful death lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeks damages from the federal government for the allegedly unlawful killings of United States citizens abroad. The families of several people killed overseas by unmanned drone aircraft are claiming violations of the decedents’ constitutional rights as U.S. citizens. Unlike many wrongful death lawsuits, this suit alleges violations of statutory and constitutional rights, rather than negligence, by the government. The lawsuit is sure to generate public controversy, particularly since the government asserted national security reasons for the drone attacks.

Nasser al-Aulaqi (sometimes spelled al-Awlaki) and Sarah Khan, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed suit against federal government officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, in mid-July 2012. Their complaint alleges that the federal government has engaged in targeted killings of suspected terrorists abroad since 2001. Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen living in Yemen, was added to a “kill list” in late 2009 or early 2010, based on suspicion of terrorist activity or support.

On September 30, 2011, the complaint says, unmanned drones operated by the CIA and the Department of Defense fired missiles at a vehicle in Yemen containing Anwar al-Aulaqi. The blast killed al-Aulaqi and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan. Another drone strike on October 14, 2011, also allegedly authorized by the defendants, killed at least seven people at a restaurant in Yemen, including another U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi’s 16 year-old son Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi.

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2717392_16f82561.jpgA San Diego student who spent five days locked in a holding cell after agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) apparently forgot about him has sent a claim for $20 million in damages to the DEA’s general counsel in early May. The letter, a copy of which is not publicly available, may be a preliminary step to a formal lawsuit against the U.S. government. A lawsuit could claim negligence on the part of DEA agents, as well as civil rights violations, either of which would entitle the claimant to compensation for damages.

Daniel Chong, a 23 year-old student, was arrested during the early morning of Saturday, April 21, 2012, when he was attending a party at a friend’s house in celebration of “4/20,” an unofficial holiday celebrating marijuana. DEA agents reportedly raided the party and arrested Chong and several others. They took Chong to the local DEA office to be interviewed. Chong was told that he would be released that day, and he was taken to a five-by-ten-foot holding cell to wait for a ride home. No one came for Chong for five days.

Employees at the DEA office apparently forgot about Chong for five days. Chong had no food or water and no toilet, and his hands remained cuffed behind his back. He said that he could hear people outside and that he kicked at the door and screamed for help, but no one came. By the third day, he said he was hallucinating cartoon characters who spoke to him. He drank his own urine at least three times. He found a packet of white powder in a blanket, which he consumed, presumably thinking it might be food. He reportedly broke his glasses in an effort to commit suicide, going as far as trying to carve a message into his arm.

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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.

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150_50513A task force appointed to investigate an infamous case at the University of California at Davis, when a campus police officer evidently used pepper spray on a group of seated, allegedly non-violent student protesters in November 2011, has decided not to release the findings of their investigation yet. The task force has retained a private security company to look into the case. The company has completed its investigation, but the task force has opted to withhold its report until the task force itself completes its own work, which may not be until February or later.

The events of November 18, 2011 are still very much in dispute, regarding whether any students were behaving violently, whether the UC Davis police on the scene faced any danger, and whether arrests or use of force were warranted. The incident has become part of the broader debate about the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that began in New York City and has spread to cities around the world. The Occupy protest in Washington, D.C., while enduring arrests by police, has not had issues of alleged police brutality to the extent of other American cities. The issues presented in California are of interest to anyone who represents the rights of people injured by police misconduct.

What is clear about the UC Davis incident is that a police officer used pepper spray, at point-blank range, on a group of unarmed students seated in a close group on the ground. The case has prompted outrage around the country (towards both police and protesters) and calls for investigations by California lawmakers. It has also prompted questions about the safety and health effects of pepper spray, especially as it has been used by police in these protests.

The administration of UC Davis has formally apologized for the incident, acknowledging that the student protest was non-violent and calling the police action “deplorable and unacceptable.” The university chancellor, Linda Katehi, has claimed that she specifically instructed campus police to dismantle the protesters’ camp peacefully, and not to do it at if the students behaved aggressively. The police officer shown pepper-spraying the students was placed on administrative leave shortly after the incident, and he lives on as an internet meme.

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