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Justices Absolve Cop of|So-Called Incompetence

WASHINGTON (CN) - A police officer who kicked in a gate and knocked a woman out while pursuing a misdemeanor suspect may have immunity, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The altercation occurred when Officer Mike Stanton was called out to La Mesa, a high-crime neighborhood near San Diego, Calif., at 1 a.m. in May 2008 for an "unknown disturbance ... involving a baseball bat."

There was nothing unusual at the scene when Stanton and his partner arrived, but the officers noticed Nicholas Patrick and two other men walking in the street.

While two of the men walked into a nearby apartment complex, Patrick walked away quickly in another direction. Patrick was not carrying a bat, but Stanton exited his patrol car and ordered him to stop.

Despite these instructions, Patrick entered a nearby front yard through the gate, and closed the gate behind him.

Stanton kicked down the gate in pursuit, unaware that the woman who owned the home, Drendolyn Sims, was standing directly behind it.

The gate hit Sims in the head, "rendering her temporarily unconscious, or at least incoherent," and cutting her forehead, according to the court.

Sims sued Stanton for illegal search and excessive force, but U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller granted Stanton qualified immunity.

Miller found that the circumstances justified a warrantless entry, but a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed last year after concluding that Stanton had no justifiable reason to kick in the gate.

The U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed Monday, finding no basis for holding that Stanton was "plainly incompetent" in entering Sims' yard to pursue the fleeing Patrick.

Indeed there is sharp division among state and federal courts as to "whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that sus­pect," the eight-page opinion states.

"We do not express any view on whether Officer Stan­ton's entry into Sims' yard in pursuit of Patrick was con­stitutional," the unsigned opinion states. "But whether or not the constitutional rule applied by the court below was correct, it was not 'beyond debate.' Stanton may have been mistaken in believing his actions were justified, but he was not 'plainly incompetent.'"

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