Court Rejects Immunity For Police Who Held 83-Year-Old Grandmother At Gunpoint

An 83-year-old woman who was held at gunpoint and handcuffed after her car was wrongly reported as stolen can sue the officers responsible, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month.

Back in July 2019, Elise Brown called police that one of her two cars, a cream-colored Oldsmobile, had been stolen. But while she was driving her other car, a dark blue Oldsmobile, an automated license plate reader scanned her license plate and incorrectly identified that car as stolen.

Based on that hit, police officers in Chino, California pulled Brown over. Following “standard police practices,” officers approach the car with guns drawn, before ordering Brown to turn off the engine, throw her keys out the window, and to slowly step outside the car. Brown immediately complied.

But even after officers confirmed that Brown wasn’t armed or any type of threat, they still ordered Brown to get on her knees and threw her in handcuffs. Only afterwards did the officers realize that there was a mistake with the stolen vehicle reporting and released Brown.

To vindicate her Fourth Amendment rights, Brown sued. In her complaint, she stated that the incident left her suffering from “severe, ongoing physical, mental and emotional distress.”

In response, the officers involved argued they were entitled to qualified immunity. As the Institute for Justice explains, this legal doctrine protects all government employees (not just police officers) from civil rights lawsuits, unless they violated a “clearly established” right. And to clearly establish a right, victims need to identify precedents with similar fact patterns.

Brown thought she found one. Five years before she was stopped, the Ninth Circuit rejected qualified immunity for San Francisco police officers who wrongfully stopped, handcuffed, and forced Denise Green to her knees after the car she was driving was incorrectly flagged as stolen by an automated license plate reader.

But a federal district court saw it differently and found enough “material differences” between the two cases. Among those differences, Green reported “knee problems,” while Brown apparently “did not struggle to get to her knees,” even though Brown was almost 40 years older than Green.

In addition, Green was in handcuffs for up to 20 minutes, while Brown was “only” handcuffed for about three minutes. As a result, the court held that “the law was not clearly established at the time of the incident” and fully granted qualified immunity.

Fortunately, Brown had better luck on appeal. On February 7, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the officers “initially acted reasonably” when they removed Brown from her own car. But after she immediately complied with their orders, it should have been abundantly clear that the officers on the scene were not threatened by “an 83-year-old, 5’2”, 117-pound, unarmed, completely compliant woman.” In fact, one of the sergeants even told Brown, “Obviously, you do not look like you were going to be a violent suspect.”

Moreover, any differences between the cases involving Brown and Green were “beside the point.” “The facts indicating that the plaintiff in Green did not present an immediate threat are materially the same as the facts at issue here,” the Ninth Circuit added. Accordingly, the court denied qualified immunity to the officers for Brown’s excessive force claim, allowing that portion of her lawsuit to continue.

However, the Ninth Circuit still upheld qualified immunity for the officers on Brown’s unlawful arrest claim. But even this split decision was too much for Judge Ryan Nelson. In a caustic dissent, Nelson warned that by allowing an 83-year-old woman to sue the officers who wrongfully handcuffed her, the court’s decision “threatens to chill future police enforcement and investigation in these serious cases.”

Nelson chastised the majority for relying on “far too generalized terms” to clearly establish Brown’s constitutional rights. Instead, Nelson would only allow an absurdly narrow and specific fact pattern to count as valid precedent.

“We have never so held,” he wrote, that “it is clearly established that police who encounter an unarmed grand theft auto suspect of small stature are forbidden from instructing the suspect to kneel for a few seconds and placing the suspect in handcuffs for a couple minutes while they verify automobile ownership and confirm nobody else is in the vehicle.”

The judge, however, did concede that “handcuffing a well-behaved, unarmed, 83-year-old woman who complied with police direction may violate standards of societal decorum.” But even if “grandmas around the country may rightfully wag an experienced finger chastising the police action here,” the officers should still be entitled to qualified immunity, Nelson argued.

Hat tip to the Short Circuit newsletter from the Institute for Justice.