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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Sheriff Not Liable for Officer’s Sexual Assault

(CN) - An Arkansas woman who claims an officer grabbed her breast in jail can't sue the county sheriff for negligence, the 8th Circuit ruled, because "there is no obvious need to train officers not to sexually assault women.

Hot Spring County Deputy Sheriff Joseph Stephen Fite arrested a woman with several outstanding warrants after she refused to go out with him, and then told her that he would lower her fines if she showed him her breasts. When she consented, he grabbed one of her exposed breasts.

Fite pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was sentenced to five years probation.

The woman sued county Sheriff Ron Ball, claiming the sexual assault was due to Ball's failure to train.

The St. Louis-based court said the plaintiff could not prove that the sexual assault was directly caused by Ball's failure to train, or that the incident would not have occurred had the county trained its officers that sexual assault is a felony.

The panel also noted there's no evidence that the sheriff knew the sexual assault would occur, so he can't be held liable for failure to supervise.

The judges upheld a district court order granting qualified immunity to Ball in his individual capacity and reversed a liability finding for failure to train.

"[W]e do not believe that there is a patently obvious need to train an officer not to sexually assault women, especially where there is no notice at all that such behavior is likely," Judge C. Arlen Beam wrote. "An objectively reasonable officer would know that it is impermissible to touch a detainee's sexual organs by forcible compulsion." Fite himself acknowledged that he knew the behavior was wrong, the ruling states.

"[A] reasonable supervisor in Sheriff Ball's position would not know that a failure to specifically train Fite not to sexually assault a woman would cause Fite to engage in that very behavior," Beam concluded.

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