A UC Davis football player who was shot in the eye by a projectile fired by campus police trying to break up a party on a city street can sue the university, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in a decision critical of the use of force against "non-threatening individuals." The ruling may be a setback for other police fighting lawsuits by Occupy protesters.
Wednesday's ruling stemmed from an April 2004 incident in which UC Davis and city police tried to disperse a crowd at a party by shooting pepper balls, which break on impact and spray a powder akin to mace or pepper spray.
About 1,000 people were at a Davis apartment complex to celebrate UC Davis' annual Picnic Day. The police wanted to break up the party because the street was congested, partygoers had parked illegally and some minors were drinking alcohol, the court said. Police in riot gear entered the complex, and an officer fired a pepper ball into an area where UC Davis student Timothy Nelson was standing with friends.
The pepper ball hit the sophomore in the eye and caused permanent damage, eventually leading Nelson to lose a football scholarship and drop out of the university, the court said.
Writing for the court, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said police used excessive force. "A reasonable officer would have known that firing projectiles, including pepper balls, in the direction of individuals suspected of, at most, minor crimes, who posed no threat to the officers or others, and who engaged in only passive resistance, was unreasonable," he wrote.
John Whitesides, a lawyer for the city of Davis, whose police were also sued in the case, defended the officers' actions and said that they might seek a larger panel of the 9th Circuit court to reconsider the case.