Personal Injury Claim Possible after Police Officer Allegedly Used Excessive Force in Detention of Woman in Prostitution Sting Says U.S. Appeals Court

prostitution02cc_400.jpgA police officer who prevented an suspected prostitute from leaving a hotel by grabbing her in a hotel hallway and then detaining in her in a hotel room, after physically preventing her from leaving the premises, may be liable for peronsal injuries as the result of using excessive force, but not for wrongful detention, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The case involved a prostitution sting, which took place in a hotel in Portland, Maine in March, 2006. The hotel room was set up for video and audio surveillance, with officers and a prosecutor set up in an adjoinging hotel room. The Plaintiff had responded to a telephone request for an exotic dancer to come to the hotel. An undercover officer was in the room impersonating a customer seeking sexual favors.

The Plaintiff entered the room, and was asked to undress, but suspicious of the circumstances, told the officer she was only there to dance and then asked the officer to take his clothes off. He refused. She then agreed to undress, but quickly discerned that the police were involved. Money was sitting on the dresser and the woman took a $20.00 to “pay for her trouble”, and commenced to leave the room and the hotel.

However, she was apprehended in the hallway by a police officer who had been in the adjoining room. He grabbed the Plaintiff by the arm, put her against the wall, and then took her back into the hotel room to further question her. She was ultimately permitted to leave without any arrest. The Plaintiff went home, called the police, and later went to the hospital, where was treated for injuries to her arm and shoulder, which later was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff.

The Plaintiff filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action, claiming her civil rights had been violated by the police officer, alleging wrongful detention and excessive force. The Defendant moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the U.S. District Court Judge, finding that the police officer had probable cause to detain the Plaintiff based on the “pooled knowledge” of the police present, and specifically because the Plaintiff had stolen the $20.00 bill (although she gave it back at the hotel). The judge ruled that the detention, and force used, were reasonable, given that there was probable cause for an arrest and that the officer had limited immunity in carrying out reasonable and appropriate police activities.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the detention was reasonable and lawful, but viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, as required on a motion for summary judgment, it could not be found as a matter of law that the force used under the circumstances was reasonable.

Commenting on the nature of the alleged “petty crime”, and the conduct of the police officer as a result, the Court found that a jury could determine that the force was excessive, unreasonable and therefore violative of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The question then turned on whether the police officer’s actions in using excessive force was a reasonable “mistake”, which would invoke the qualified immunity to which public officials are sometimes afforded in these situations.

The Court of Appeals said no, disagreeing with the lower Court, and stating that the force allegedly used by the police officer under the Plaintiff’s version of the facts, and given the purported theft (which was not pursued) would permit a jury to find that the police officer’s conduct was objectively unreasonable and that no immunity should attach. It reversed the district court entry of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings on the excessive force claims.

Comment: A review of the decision in this case sends a message that constitutional rights protecting individuals from improper police conduct will not be extinguished at the summary judgment stage of a civil rights action, so long as there is some set of alleged facts, which would allow a jury to determine that the conduct of the public official was objectively unreasonable. The immunity afforded police officers is truly qualified.

Morelli v. Webster 

1st Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 08-1759, January 7, 2009