Last week, victims of civil rights abuses by police scored two victories in Massachusetts and New York. In Massachusetts, in Stamps v. Framingham, the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a police officer who holds a loaded gun at the head of a non-threatening, compliant individual, with the gun’s safety off, cannot avoid civil liability for accidentally shooting and killing the individual. In New York, in Held v. Christian, a police officer agreed in a court settlement to pay $45,000 to an individual whose nude photos he stole after taking possession of her cell phone during a routine traffic stop.
First, in Stamps v. Framingham, police officers had raided an elderly man’s home seeking his son and his son’s associates for drug-related offenses. Upon entering the home, the police found Stamps, who immediately put his hands up and lay down on the floor. All but one officer stepped over Stamps to continue to search the house. One officer remained behind to watch Stamps. Although Stamps was unarmed, non-threatening, quiet, and completely compliant, the officer pointed a loaded semi-automatic rifle at Stamps head, with the safety off. At some point the officer shot and killed Stamps; the officer claimed that it was an accident.
In court, the officer claimed that because Stamp’s death was purportedly an accident, he could not be sued for unreasonable force under the Fourth Amendment. The federal district court rejected the argument and held that the case should proceed to trial to allow a jury to decide. The officer appealed and last week the First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the officer must stand trial. The court held: “the state of the law was clear such that a reasonable officer in Duncan’s position would have understood that pointing his loaded assault rifle at the head of a prone, non-resistant, innocent person who presents no danger, with the safety off and a finger on the trigger, constituted excessive force in violation of that person’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
In New York, in Held v. Christian, a woman was pulled over by a police officer purportedly because her car lacked a vehicle inspection sticker. When she was pulled over, the officer searched her car and found prescription drugs and arrested her. She was later released from the jail with no charges filed. However, while she was being processed at the jail, she gave her phone to the police. The officer took the opportunity to text himself private nude photos of the woman from her cellphone without her consent.
When the woman learned that the officer had stolen her private photos, she filed a federal lawsuit against him. The case settled almost immediately, within a month of the officer filing his answer to the lawsuit, during a settlement negotiated by the federal Magistrate Judge assigned to the case. The officer agreed to pay the victim $45,000 in exchange for the dismissal of the case.