(CN) - A cop with a history of bad driving may have used excessive force when he ran over the leg of teenager he chased for throwing snowballs at houses, a federal judge ruled.
Joseph McCormack had been a 17-year-old high school student in Whitman, Mass., in 2007, when he and some friends drank several beers at a St. Patrick's Day party.
"It turned out not to be a lucky night," the March 20 ruling states.
When the teens left the party, they began tossing snowballs back and forth, and eventually began throwing snowballs at neighboring houses as well.
"The situation quickly snowballed" after homeowner David Jones went outside to confront the young men, the court noted.
One of the teens, Jay Brazer, pushed Jones to the ground, and the group tried to drive away, but Jones chased down the car and punched Brazer through an open car window. The car then accelerated and Jones fell to the ground.
After making their getaway, McCormack, Brazer and another boy decided to turn around and fight Jones. Jones, still standing outside his house, told the boys he would "kick [their] ass," and they allegedly responded in kind.
Police finally responded to the call Jones had made earlier as Brazer turned to leave, and McCormack and his other friend continued to exchange words with Jones.
Officer Dean Leavitt gave chase as the boys fled, allegedly hitting McCormack and running over his leg. Leavitt claimed that he only attempted to "head off" the boys with his vehicle, and that McCormack ran into the cruiser of his own accord.
McCormack claimed in court, however, that Leavitt refused to take him to the hospital, yanked on his earrings until his ears bled, and repeatedly referred to him as "boy" and "pretty boy."
U.S. District Judge Patti Saris refused Wednesday to dismiss McCormack's claims of excessive force, denial of medical care, and failure to train, finding that "given the relatively minor crimes alleged, a reasonable jury could find that use of a police cruiser to strike or 'head off' 'plaintiff was excessive."
"Leavitt was pursuing teenagers who had been accused of throwing snowballs at houses and making verbal threats," Saris wrote. "McCormack and Brazer were eventually charged with disturbing of the peace and required to complete 20 hours of community service."
Saris added that "a reasonable officer should have known that intentionally driving a car into or in front of a fleeing teenager accused of throwing snowballs and making verbal threats violated McCormack's clearly established Fourth Amendment rights."
The court also concluded that "a reasonable jury could find that Officer Leavitt's allegedly repeated use of the terms 'boy' and 'pretty boy,' in conjunction with his numerous allegations that McCormack was from Brockton and a drug dealer, demonstrated racial animus."
Salis also upheld McCormack's failure to train claims in light of Leavitt's "problematic history with motor vehicles," including a four-year restriction from operating vehicles because the police chief "wasn't happy with [his] driving," according to Leavitt's testimony.
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