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Supreme Court rejects suit that argued excessive force by police

A man in West Palm Beach, Fla., died while police tried to restrain him. His mother filed a suit that claimed her son was the victim of excessive force by police officers, but the Supreme Court dismissed the case Monday.

By Staff writer / February 22, 2010

The US Supreme Court refused to take up a lawsuit that alleged that police in West Palm Beach, Fla., used excessive force.

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An October 2005 confrontation on a dark street in West Palm Beach, Fla., could have been just another episode of the real-life police television program “Cops.”

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A distraught, shirtless man stumbled at the edge of the road while apparently trying to flag down passing vehicles. At one point, he begins to gesticulate wildly and runs toward traffic, yelling. A police officer radios in a “Signal 20,” a mentally disturbed subject. The officer attempts to restrain him. The man resists. More officers arrive.

The entire encounter lasted only a few minutes and was recorded by a “Cops” film crew riding along with the first officer on the scene. But the videotape of the confrontation never made it into a public broadcast. That’s because after being hogtied by five police officers, the shirtless man, Donald Lewis, stopped breathing and died right there at the side of the road.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court refused to examine a lawsuit filed Mr. Lewis’s mother, Linda, claiming that her son was the victim of excessive force by West Palm Beach police officers. The high court offered no explanation for its dismissal of the case.

The action lets stand earlier rulings by a federal judge and a three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta that said all five officers are shielded from the lawsuit by qualified immunity.

Ms. Lewis and her lawyers had argued that the encounter between the police officers and Donald Lewis was a violation of her son’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable and excessive use of force by police officers.

In the Supreme Court petition, Lewis argued that in 2005, it was clearly established law that hogtying a distraught subject constitutes use of deadly force. Once Donald Lewis was handcuffed and his legs shackled, Lewis and her lawyers said, it was unnecessary to bind his wrists and ankles tightly together behind his back while officers allegedly continued to kneel on his shoulders and neck.

The county medical examiner concluded that Lewis died from “sudden respiratory arrest following physical struggling restraint due to cocaine-induced excited delirium.”

The Lewis legal team hired forensic expert Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner in New York City. He testified that Lewis died because of “asphyxia caused by neck compression.” In other words, something during the encounter with police constricted his neck and blocked his ability to breathe.

The key issue before the court was whether the police officers violated a constitutional right that was clearly established in October 2005. The 11th Circuit said that to prevail, Lewis must show that the police officers’ conduct was so far beyond the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force that the officers had to know they were violating the Constitution.

The appeals court said the test is whether reasonable officers would know their conduct was excessive and unlawful.

The 11th Circuit rejected the contention that hogtying was unreasonable once Lewis was already handcuffed and his legs shackled. “Even though most of the officers in this case testified that Lewis was not a danger to them and was merely resisting arrest, he was, as the district court described, ‘an agitated and uncooperative man with only a tenuous grasp on reality,’ ” the appeals-court panel said.

The panel concluded: “Because of his refusal to sit upright and his inability to remain calm, Lewis remained a safety risk to himself and to others.”

Lewis’s lawyer, Matthew Farmer of Tampa, Fla., had argued that the 11th Circuit decision was contrary to a US Supreme Court ruling in 2002. It said that handcuffing a prison inmate to a hitching post in the hot sun for extended periods violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

The judges said in the Lewis case that it was not a clearly established violation of the Fourth Amendment to hogtie and restrain an individual.

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