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  • Supreme Court Report

  •   High Court Limits Brutality Liability

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, April 29, 1997; Page A01


    The Supreme Court made it tougher for victims of police brutality to successfully sue local governments, holding in a sharply divided ruling that a municipality cannot be held liable for an officer's actions even if he had a history of assault before being hired.

    The decision's impact goes beyond excessive police force disputes and would affect cases filed over many civil rights violations. By a 5 to 4 vote, the court said a victim must show that a city or county consciously disregarded the risk of hiring a person and that the injuries were a "plainly obvious consequence" of the hiring decision.

    The case involved a deputy sheriff in Oklahoma who was hired despite his criminal record and who then, while on duty, pulled a woman from a truck and threw her to the ground. Her knees were so severely injured that, even after four operations, she still needed total knee replacements. A lower court ruled that she was entitled to an $818,000 judgment against the Bryan County board of commissioners, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision.

    Although a victim could still sue the individual officer, yesterday's ruling makes it harder for a person to bring suit under a Reconstruction-era law, known as Section 1983 for its place in the U.S. Code, against a state or municipality for infringing on rights protected by the Constitution or federal statute. However, the ruling covers only hiring decisions, not claims that a government failed, for example, to properly train or discipline officers or other workers.

    "[A] finding of culpability cannot depend on the mere probability that any officer inadequately screened will inflict any constitutional injury," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court. "Rather, it must depend on a finding that this officer was highly likely to inflict the particular injury suffered by the plaintiff."

    The court said Congress intended the civil rights law to be used only when government directly deprives an individual of federal rights. "Cases involving constitutional injuries allegedly traceable to an ill-considered hiring decision pose the greatest risk that a municipality will be held liable for an injury that it did not cause," O'Connor said. She was joined by the four other justices who have been most concerned about protecting states' authority and rights: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

    Dissenting justices said the ruling unfairly raises the threshold for when states and municipalities will be held responsible for their own hires. Some of them asserted that it now will be virtually impossible for a victim to show that a hiring decision caused his or her injuries.

    In his dissent, Justice David H. Souter challenged the majority's demand that there be a direct link between a county's hiring and the harm done as a result of it. "While the decision to hire the violent scofflaw may not entail harm to others as unquestionably as an order to `go out and rough up some suspects,' it is a long way from neutral in the risk it creates."

    The case, Commissioners of Bryan County v. Brown, involved a deputy sheriff named Stacy Burns who had a record of driving infractions and who had pleaded guilty to various misdemeanors, including assault and battery, resisting arrest and public drunkenness.

    But Burns happened to be the son of the sheriff's nephew and the sheriff testified that he paid little notice to Burns's lengthy rap sheet when he hired him.

    The incident that got him in trouble occurred in 1991, when Burns pulled over a couple in their truck. Todd Brown and his wife, Jill, were heading north from Texas toward their Bryan County home and decided to avoid a police checkpoint. Burns and another Bryan County officer saw the truck turn around and chased after it. When the truck stopped, Burns pulled Jill Brown from the cab and hurled her to the ground. Burns pinned her down, handcuffed her and left her there for 30 to 60 minutes, according to the record. Brown successfully sued the county, saying that it was liable for Burns's actions because his police record should have prevented his hiring.

    In the majority opinion, O'Connor noted that Oklahoma law did not prohibit the hiring of a person who has committed such misdemeanors and said the sheriff "did not authorize Burns to use excessive force." She said that Jill Brown failed to show that the county, through its "deliberate indifference," was the "moving force" behind her injuries. She noted that typically a challenge is brought to a municipality based on a policy rather than a single hiring decision and that in this case the instance of inadequate screening did not rise to the level of deliberate indifference.

    Wallace Jefferson, the county's lawyer, praised the court for increasing the scrutiny for lawsuits related to a single hiring action, especially, he said, when the hiring "was not prohibited by state or federal statute."

    Separately yesterday, the court revisited a 1995 decision requiring police who have a warrant to knock and announce themselves before entering a home.

    After that ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that, in serious drug cases, police officers are not required to knock and announce themselves because of the danger that today's drug culture brings.

    But the justices ruled unanimously in Richards v. Wisconsin that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures does not permit a blanket exception to the knock-and-announce requirement for felony drug investigations.

    In an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court said police could barge in without knocking only when they have a reasonable suspicion that announcing their presence would be dangerous or futile or that it would inhibit the effective probe of the crime.

    And while the justices rejected the Wisconsin court's blanket exception, they nonetheless said in the case at hand – involving the search of a Madison hotel for drugs – the officers' decision not to knock was reasonable given the circumstances.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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