(CN) – Police officers breaking up the “the biggest party in history” at an apartment complex near the University of California, Davis, had no valid reason to shoot the pepper ball that permanently injured an athlete, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Former UC Davis student and football player Timothy Nelson claims he and his friends were trying to the leave the raucous April 2004 event, which drew some 1,000 people to an apartment complex not far from campus. One attendee described it as “the biggest party in history,” according to the court. Local and campus police cracked down as partygoers and their cars clogged the street in front of the complex and disrupted traffic, but the crowd paid little attention and sprayed the officers with bottles, food and obscene language.
About 40 officers descended later in full riot gear and carrying pepper ball guns. Nelson says he and his friends got stuck in a narrow breezeway while trying to leave. He says they could not hear the orders of police, and that officers were actually blocking the exit.
Officers fired several pepper balls into the crowd, and one of the projectiles hit Nelson in the eye. The injury, for which he has undergone several surgeries over the years, led to the loss of his athletic scholarship. Nelson was never charged with a crime.
At least one officer testified that he had been told to shoot into the crowd, and another admitted that he had targeted individuals within Nelson’s group. Both actions contradict department policy.
The Davis Police Department refused to investigate a complaint filed by Nelson and his parents. Campus police found no wrongdoing by its officers after a review of written reports on the incident.
Unsatisfied, Nelson sued the city of Davis, its police chief and several officers in Sacramento District Court, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England denied the officers’ claims of qualified immunity, finding that the use of such force had been excessive considering the relatively minor nature of the offenses, and that the officers should have known it.
An interim appeal fared no better before a three-judge panel in San Francisco.
“A reasonable officer would have known that firing projectiles, including pepperballs, in the direction of individuals suspected of, at most, minor crimes, who posed no threat to the officers or others, and who engaged in only passive resistance, was unreasonable,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the unanimous panel.
“Although the officers used force against Nelson and his group during their attempt to disperse a crowd, there was no exigency motivating the officers’ actions and they were aware at the time of the shooting that they were using force that might lead to serious injury against non-threatening individuals who had committed no serious crime,” he added.