Supreme Court sides with police in two cases

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to clarify when police can use deadly force to stop fleeing criminal suspects but said a lower court got it wrong in allowing a lawsuit against a Washington state officer who shot a burglary suspect.

In another Washington state case the court took up on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that police have authority to arrest suspects on charges that later fall apart, so long as officers had a second, valid reason for the detention.

In the deadly force case, 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 8-1 opinion that found only that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco erred in ruling that the officer, Rochelle Brosseau, 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 and for questioning in a burglary in Puyallup. 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.

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.

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.

In the arrest case, the court’s 8-0 ruling sets aside a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Jerome Alford. Two Washington State Patrol officers had arrested him for tape recording their conversation during a traffic stop in November 1997.

During the traffic stop, Alford told the officers he had case law showing the taping was legal, but police arrested him anyway partly for separate reasons, which they did not tell him, that he appeared to be impersonating a police officer.

Under Washington state law, officers are not required to state the reasons for an arrest.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the arrest was improper, ruling that the separate charges were not sufficiently “closely related” to the initial offense for which he was arrested. But in an opinion Monday by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court disagreed.

Scalia reasoned that the Fourth Amendment holds an arrest to be lawful if it was “reasonable” given all the facts at the time. Thus, even though officers were wrong about the tape-recording charge, the suspicious circumstances in which he appeared to be impersonating an officer could justify the arrest, he said.

Monday’s ruling sends the case back to the 9th Circuit to determine whether police had probable cause to arrest Alford on charges of impersonating an officer.

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