Thursday, October 28, 2010

First Circuit: Rashomon Meets Night at the Roxbury

The parties' accounts of a late-night arrest in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the subject of a First Circuit decision earlier this week, vary greatly.

From the police officer's viewpoint, plaintiff Matthew Raiche led him and another officer on a chase, including down one-way streets headed the wrong way, stopping only when he got stuck. (Raiche was on a motorcycle and the officers were in a police cruiser.) From Raiche's viewpoint, he pulled over at his earliest safe opportunity and waited on his motorcycle, thinking the cruiser merely needed to pass.

The officer explained that once Raiche stopped, he left the cruiser and lifted Raiche off the motorcycle. Raiche, on the other hand, remembers that the officer "launched himself in the air and tackled Raiche, football-style, to the ground." The motorcycle was irreparably damaged from the impact and Raiche's head hit the ground (ironic, since the reason for the pursuit was that Raiche was not wearing a helmet). Also, during handcuffing, Raiche's shoulder was partially dislocated and his head hit the ground again.

Ultimately, the jury believed part of both stories, finding that the officer had probable cause for the arrest, but used unreasonable force. It likely made a difference that while the officer recalled instructing Raiche to get on the ground before placing him there, the officer's partner did not recall this warning (although he did confirm the officer's version of the chase). The jury awarded Raiche $2,500 in compensatory damages and no punitive damages.

The officer appealed, citing qualified immunity, as he had in the district court. Characterizing the incident as "a late-night lapse in judgment" on the officer's part, the First Circuit found that his "use of force was not defensible and, therefore, that qualified immunity affords him no refuge."