When can an officer be held
legally liable for excessive force?
Supreme Court to decide

PoliceOne Staff Report
(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court has agreed to determine when police officers can be held liable in civil courts for using excessive force during an arrest, a case in which the issue of police brutality is on the line.

The decision, expected in early 2001 is expected to impact police departments across the country.

The Clinton administration is seeking to vacate a lower court ruling that would send to a jury an animal rights activist's suit against the military police officer who arrested him when he unfurled a banner at a Sept. 24, 1994, speech by Vice President Al Gore.

Army Pvt. Donald Saucier was serving as an MP at the San Francisco event in which the Presidio base was about to be turned into a national park. Veterinarian Elliot Katz, president of the organization, "In Defense of Animals," had a front-row seat for Gore's speech and unfurled a banner as the vice president began to speak.

Katz claims that Saucier and another MP grabbed him and threw him "violently" into a military van. Katz, who was not injured, was released later and no charges were lodged.

A federal judge and the circuit court of appeals had decided that a jury could hear Katz's argument that Saucier violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures.

Both courts also ruled that Saucier was not entitled to "qualified immunity" from being sued.

The Clinton administration argued that the lower-court rulings mean that police officers "in many cases, may use no force at all" in arresting someone and the justices agreed to hear the government's bid to throw out an animal-rights activist's lawsuit

Government lawyers said qualified immunity was intended to protect officers from being sued unless they were "plainly incompetent" or knowingly violated the law, according to an Associated Press report.

The "split-second decisions" made by officers on the street should be the controlling factor, Justice Department lawyers argued.

Katz's lawyer, J. Kirk Boyd, argued a jury should decide who used excessive force and not a judge who has been asked to dismiss a case before trial.

"There will always be brutality issues," Boyd said. "The question is, who's going to decide in a free society whether police have abused their power."

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