Excessive Force Case Against Cop Reinstated

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
January 8, 2009 12:00 am

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PORTLAND — Yesterday, a Maine woman was granted her day in court, when a federal appeals court reinstated her excessive force case against a South Portland police officer. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated a lower-court decision insulating the police officer, Steven Webster, from a civil rights complaint by Rosanna Morelli.

“We are gratified to have the opportunity to tell a jury our client’s story,” said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, who argued the appeal. “Nobody is above the law, including the police.”

The Appeals Court reviewed a ruling that the officer had sufficient basis to justify detaining the plaintiff and that the officer was entitled to “qualified immunity” – a legal standard that shields the police from liability even when they are mistaken in their belief that their actions are lawful. The Court agreed that the police had sufficient justification to stop and question the woman, but that it was inappropriate to deny the woman a chance to present her excessive force claim to a jury.

In his opinion for the Court, Judge Selya concluded “that the plaintiff not only has made out a trialworthy issue as to whether Webster’s use of a significant degree of force transgressed her Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force but also that she has made a showing adequate to thwart a qualified immunity defense.” Judge Stahl, in concurrence, would have gone farther than his colleagues, expressing “serious doubt about the basis on which the majority decides the first question, whether the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion and probable cause.”

“It is the job of the police to protect women from violence,” said Barbara Goodwin, an attorney with Murray, Plumb & Murray who is MCLU cooperating attorney in the case. “Women will not trust the police to protect them, though, if they are afraid of violence from the police.”

The parties now await further orders from the trial court.

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