(CN) — Chucking claims from a roughed-up bounty hunter, the Ninth Circuit on Thursday doubted that a Las Vegas courtroom marshal used excessive force in following a judge's orders to give the man the boot.
The not-quite brawl occurred on Oct. 4, 2011, when the bail-enforcement agent who owns of Vegas Fugitive Recovery arrived at the Regional Justice Center with two compatriots.
They had their eyes set on two women on the court's docket that day, Malena Reed and Mary Beth Lourcey.
Though the women were charged with conspiracy to make a bomb threat, a bail-bond insurance company called AIA Surety also sought the women for alleged failure to keep the company apprised of their whereabouts.
Vegas Fugitive Recovery's Adam Brooks wanted to take the women into custody, but Justice of the Peace Deborah Lippis "was having none of it," the Ninth Circuit explained.
"These ladies aren't fugitives," Lippis said, noting that AIA did not follow the proper paperwork to waive the women's right to a preliminary hearing.
While the bounty hunters went out into the hallway to strategize, Lippis had her marshal, Jim Keener, send a warning.
"Jim, go out there and tell him he cannot tell those people what to do, that they are free to go, and ask him if he'd like me to take him into custody," the judge said, as quoted in the ruling.
When Brooks marched back into the court and began spouting case law, interrupting court proceedings, Lippis pronounced the man "under arrest," but settled on a warning.
"If you ever pull this garbage in this courtroom or any other courtroom again, ... you will stay in custody," she said.
The warning was not enough, however, as Brooks pronounced the court's actions "illegal" and threatened to sue "everybody here."
Lippis did not make good on her threat to arrest Brooks, but he did on his threat to sue.
A federal judge dismissed most of the suit, but left intact a claim that marshal Keener used excessive force in allegedly shoving Brooks out of the courtroom.
The Ninth Circuit reversed Thursday, from San Francisco, saying Keener does have qualified immunity because there is little evidence that excessive force actually occurred.
"Given the chaos in the courtroom and the undisputed evidence that Brooks was intent on disobeying the court's instructions — and given his extremely vague and insubstantial allegations about his injury — it is simply not 'beyond debate' that Keener employed an unreasonable amount of force," U.S. Circuit Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote for a three-judge panel.
Brooks says he injured his back and sought medical attention, but did not detail his claimed injuries, the ruling notes.
"A reasonable marshal could have believed that the Fourth Amendment permitted him to use the amount of force Brooks claims Keener employed, even if the circumstances were exactly as Brooks describes," O'Scannlain wrote.
The panel did affirm denial of absolute immunity for Keener.
Though he was following the judge's orders to "please escort this nice gentleman out of the courtroom," O'Scannlain says this does not mean that Keener was performing a judicial function.
"We have never held that courtroom officials — bailiffs, marshals, and the like — receive absolute immunity whenever they act pursuant to a judge's order," O'Scannlain wrote.
Absolute immunity is an "extraordinary attribute" that protects against liability for damages under any circumstances and leads to "swift dismissals" to save money on litigation costs, the ruling notes.
Judges Jerome Farris and Morgan Christen concurred. The panel heard arguments in San Francisco on May 12
Las Vegas Deputy District Attorney Matthew Christian argued on Keener's behalf. Christian did not return a phone call seeking comment, nor did Las Vegas attorney Cal Potter III, who argued on behalf of Brooks.
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