(CN) – A California Highway Patrol officer is not liable for the death of a woman he shot 12 times after she led police on a high-speed chase through the streets of San Francisco, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Stephen Markgraf was among a group of highway patrolmen from Oakland and Golden Gate who chased Karen Eklund along the freeways and city streets of San Francisco early one morning in 2006.
Eklund drove a stolen car, with the headlights off, between 100 and 50 mph across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the city. After eventually coming to a stop in a cul-de-sac, Eklund yelled, “Fuck you,” at the officers and rammed her vehicle into a police cruiser, court filings show.
Within 25 seconds of the collision, Markgraf had emptied his weapon into the passenger-side window of the stolen vehicle, firing 12 shots at Eklund before another officer told him to stop. While other officers at the scene had their weapons drawn, Markgraf was the only one to open fire, the ruling states.
Eklund’s daughters, who were 12 and 10 at the time, sued Markgraf for violating their 14th Amendment right to a familial relationship. Markgraf claimed the qualified immunity typically available to law enforcement officers, but the District Court ruled that the girls had presented evidence that he had “used deadly force with a purpose to harm Eklund unrelated to a legitimate law enforcement objective,” according to the ruling.
After a trial, a jury awarded the girls $30,000 each in damages. Markgraf then moved for judgment as a matter of law based on qualified immunity, but the District Court denied the motion.
On appeal, however, the 9th Circuit reversed, finding that Markgraf was indeed eligible for qualified immunity.
“Nothing in the universe of cases prior to Markgraf’s conduct would have alerted him that his split-second decision in dealing with someone who had just led police on a dangerous high-speed chase and who was using her car as a weapon shocked the conscience,” Judge Pamela Rymer wrote for the three-judge panel in San Francisco.
Rymer added that the District Court had essentially answered the wrong question when it denied Markgraf qualified immunity.
“The question is not whether an objectively reasonable officer would believe it was constitutional to harm without a legitimate law enforcement objective, but whether such an officer would believe, in the circumstances with which Markgraf was confronted, a legitimate law enforcement objective existed,” she wrote.
The panel also vacated the District Court’s award of attorney’s fees to Eklund’s children.