Friday, June 20, 2014
When dissent rhetoric comes true
In covering summary judgment in civ pro, I teach an Eighth Circuit case called Sitzes v. City of West Memphis. A police officer drove, perhaps without lights or sirens, 80-90 mph through a residential neighborhood towards what may or may not have been a genuine emergency and hit a car, killing the driver and injuring the passenger. A divided court held that intent-to-harm was the applicable standard and granted summary judgment in favor of the officer. It is a great teaching case because both the majority and dissent parse the evidence in the record in identifying what may or may not be genuine disputes of material fact and join issue with what facts are material in light of the applicable legal standard. It is also one of the few cases in Civ Pro that genuinely seem to get students riled up.
At one point, the dissenter (a district judge sitting by designation) went into parade-of-horribles mode. The majority held that there was no intent to injure since the officer genuinely subjectively believed he was rushing towards an emergency. That being so, the dissent argued, "an officer could avoid Section 1983 liability for driving 100 miles per hour through a children’s playground during recess time, by stating that he subjectively believed there was an emergency and the path through the playground was the most direct to get to the claimed emergency." The majority's only responses were: 1) that's not this case and 2) "we think it very likely that an officer who intentionally drove through a playground . . . could be held liable even under the intent-to-harm standard, regardless of the officer’s avowed belief, at least absent some compelling exigency not described in the hypotheticals."
True, it is a golf course not a playground and the video seems to suggest it was not crowded. And it was a pursuit, apparently begun when officers attempted to serve outstanding drug warrants, perhaps the "compelling exigency" the majority demanded; it was not the officers using the golf course as a short-cut to reach some other location. And, fortunately, the officers did not hit anyone, so we need not address the § 1983 or due process questions.
On the other hand, why chase him onto the course, with all the attendant risks? There was a police helicopter in the chase, so the guy was not going anywhere.
Posted by: Miriam Cherry | Jun 21, 2014 3:30:42 PM