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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
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No Immunity for Cop’s Hot Chase of Minor Issue

(CN) - A California woman can sue the police officer who kicked in her gate and knocked her out while pursuing a misdemeanor suspect, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.

Officer Mike Stanton had been called out to La Mesa, a high-crime neighborhood near San Diego, 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.

The San Diego judge found that the circumstances justified a warrantless entry. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed Monday after concluding that Stanton had no justifiable reason to kick in the gate.

"The warrantless intrusion is particularly egregious in this case because Stanton violated the Fourth Amendment rights of an uninvolved person, Sims," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the Pasadena panel. "Stanton could have knocked on the door and asked Sims for permission to enter and speak with, or arrest, Patrick. Knocking on the door would still not have justified a warrantless entry, but at the very least, with the warning of a knock, Sims might have been able to move away from behind the gate before Stanton kicked it open. In any event, the record before us does not reveal any 'rare' circumstances that would call for an exception to the rule that 'where the underlying offense is only a misdemeanor, law enforcement must yield to the Fourth Amendment.'"

"Stanton was called to investigate a disturbance involving a baseball bat at one o'clock in the morning," Reinhardt added. "Although Stanton knew the area as one associated with gangs whose members may be armed, he had no information tying Patrick to the reported disturbance. He did not see Patrick carrying a baseball bat or any other weapon. Once Patrick fled into Sims's front yard, without signaling in any way that he would engage Stanton, return with a weapon, or otherwise threaten him with violence, there was simply no evidence of imminent danger to the officer or anyone else."

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