Appeals court: Marshals can't be sued for excessive force

AP News
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Posted: Feb 13, 2015 1:57 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that three deputy U.S. marshals who shot and wounded a fleeing teenage driver eight years ago cannot be sued for excessive use of force.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the marshals did not violate the law because Michael Fenwick was driving in a way that endangered their lives and threatened other pedestrians.

The case in Washington, D.C., unfolded amid a national debate over racially charged incidents of police force in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.

The 2007 shooting occurred after marshals approached Fenwick — then 16 years old — at an apartment complex where they suspected him of driving a stolen a car. When the deputies tried to speak to him, Fenwick began backing away.

According to court testimony, the deputies surrounded his car with guns drawn and ordered him to stop, but Fenwick ignored the order and clipped one of the deputies with his car's side view mirror as he drove away. The deputies opened fire, hitting Fenwick with four bullets.

A federal judge ruled in 2013 that there were enough facts in dispute to allow the case to go forward, including whether the deputies reasonably believed themselves to be in danger at the time they fired.

The appeals court acknowledged several recent Supreme Court decisions that say outside of a dangerous high-speed car chase, police may not use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect who poses no immediate threat to others.

But the three-judge panel said there was enough evidence that Fenwick drove his car in a manner that threatened the deputies' safety in an area where other people were also at risk.

"It was not clearly established that the deputies violated the Fourth Amendment by using deadly force to prevent his flight," the court said.

The court said the deputies are entitled to qualified immunity, a legal principle that shields public officials from being sued unless their actions violate clearly established constitutional rights.