Supreme Court hears police brutality case

Anne Gearan Associated Press
March 21, 2001, Wednesday, City Edition
Copyright 2001 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.
Dayton Daily News
March 21, 2001, Wednesday, City Edition

(WASHINGTON) - For a few minutes, a Supreme Court face-off over whether police roughed up an animal-rights demonstrator during an Al Gore speech sounded more like an episode of the real-crime television show Cops .

The 1994 arrest of Elliot Katz was caught on tape, and some of the justices had watched the scene before they came to court on Tuesday.

Then-Vice President Gore was the featured speaker at a ceremony marking the closing of the Presidio Army base. Brief clips from local news coverage of the event show Katz, a veterinarian and president of the group ''In Defense of Animals,'' being hustled away as he prepared to unfurl a protest banner. He is also shown being packed into the back of a police van.

Like the television show Cops , the tape shows a real-life arrest in progress, but unlike the show it does not explain the events from the officers' perspective.

The issue for the justices is whether Katz can sue one of the military police officers who arrested him. Katz' lawyers claim an Army private, Donald Saucier, used excessive force and violated Katz' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Justice Department claims Saucier deserves ''qualified immunity'' from civil lawsuits while on the job.

A federal trial judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided a jury should hear Katz' argument.

Police organizations and civil liberties groups are watching the case closely. It could change the rules for civil suits over alleged police brutality and make it easier or harder for victims to get their claims before a jury.

The appeals court said the test for deciding whether such claims can go to trial is whether the force used during an arrest was reasonable.

Justice Department lawyers said that would limit officers' options too much. The government argues that officers deserve some immunity even if they size up a situation incorrectly - such as believing a suspect is resisting arrest when he is not.

Katz contends in his civil suit that Saucier and another MP grabbed him and ''violently threw'' him in the van. He was later released unharmed and without charges.

Copyright 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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