Appeals Court Holds Police Liable for Firing Pepper Balls to Disperse Crowd


Police officers may be held liable for injuring someone with a pepper ball intended to disperse a crowd, reports the Los Angeles Times. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals was a setback for police agencies defending themselves against lawsuits arising out of the Occupy movement. Students from UC Davis have sued police for dousing them with pepper stray, and UC Berkeley students have sued campus police for using batons during a protest. Oakland also has been sued by Occupy protesters.

The 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. 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. 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.

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