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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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No Immunity for Officer Accused of Breaking Ribs

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - A Virginia Beach police officer accused of breaking a 22-year-old woman's ribs is not entitled to qualified immunity from excessive force claims against him, the 4th Circuit ruled.

The appeal by the officer R.R. Ray arises from a lawsuit originally filed by Amanda Smith filed in the Virginia Beach circuit court, and later removed to the Norfolk, Va. Federal Court.

In her complaint, Smith says she was cooperating with the officer, who had shown up at the front door of a friend's home on Sept. 21, 2006, looking for a delinquent minor, when he suddenly grabbed her, threw her to the ground, and punched her sharply in the ribs while applying his full weight to her back.

Smith says Ray then handcuffed her, placed her under arrest, and took her to the Virginia Beach police station, where she was charged with obstruction of justice and carrying a concealed weapon. All the while, she says, officers ignored her complaints about the pain she was experiencing.

"As a result of Ray's actions, Smith suffered visible bruising and a broken rib, and she also complains of continuing shoulder pain and limited range of motion due to the arm twisting," the court documents says.

Her lawsuit asserts claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Ray maintains that because Smith resisted arrest, his actions were justified, and that he did not use excessive force during the incident. This being the case, he said, he was entitled to qualified immunity and Smith's claims should be dismissed.

As explained by U.S. Circuit Judge William Byrd Traxler, writing for the three-judge panel, the doctrine of qualified immunity "balances two important interests -- the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably."

Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Smith, Traxler held that "a reasonable jury could find that Ray employed excessive force in detaining Smith."

"We certainly note, however, that our conclusion that Ray is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage is no indictment of Ray, who denies many of the facts on which Smith's claim is based ... However, as the district court recognized, it is the jury's role, not ours, to decide whose version of facts is correct," Traxler concluded.

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