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Police Team Wins Reversal at Ninth Circuit in Excessive Force Case

Los Angeles Partners Missy O’Linn and Angela Powell and Senior Counsel Julie Fleming recently won a reversal at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for the City of Torrance in an excessive force case where a woman was shot and killed while evading arrest and ramming police vehicles with her car. The three judge panel ruled that the shooting was objectively reasonable due to the imminent threat to the officers’ lives, overruling a trial court opinion that there was a question as to whether deadly force is justified when a suspect is attempting to hit law enforcement officers with a motor vehicle.

Suspect came to the attention of Torrance Police after members of the public called in a suspected DUI driver in downtown Torrance. The first officer to encounter her observed her driving erratically, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, and that her airbag had been deployed and her horn was honking on its own. As the suspect passed the officer, she raised her middle finger and looked directly at him. The officer followed in pursuit and called for backup.

Once additional officers arrived, they performed a maneuver designed to stop a vehicle without causing injury or significant damage. The officers then commanded the suspect to keep her hands raised, which she responded to by raising both of her middle fingers and smiling. As the officers moved to block the suspect in, she dropped her right hand and proceeded to ram vehicles in front of and behind her, before accelerating her vehicle toward officers. At this point, the officers fired on the suspect, who tragically died from her injuries.

The suspect’s family filed suit against the officers and the City of Torrance, alleging a number of causes of action, most of which were dismissed by the trial court on summary judgment. Incredibly, the trial court did not dismiss the excessive force claim, ruling that there was a question as to whether the use of force was reasonable in this situation.

Our Police Team then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, who in reversing the trial court wrote, “[b]ecause the decedent accelerated toward the officers from only a few feet away, a reasonable officer under these circumstances would have perceived the decedent's actions to constitute a significant and immediate threat to the officers in the path of her vehicle and to other members of the public who were in the vicinity.” We’re thrilled that the Ninth Circuit has vindicated the professional conduct of these dedicated police officers and pleased that we could deliver this outcome for the City of Torrance.

Mildred K. O'Linn is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester LLP and the co-leader of our Governmental Entity Liability Team. Ms. O'Linn is a member of the distinguished American Board of Trial Advocates with over 30 years of experience defending law enforcement. She has received numerous awards and acknowledgments for excellence in representation and for her contributions to the defense of the law enforcement community including the 2015 California POST Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement Training.

Angela M. Powell is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Manning & Kass. As a member of the firm's Governmental Entity Liability Team, Ms. Powell represents and counsels governmental entities, public entities and individual police officers in civil rights actions. She has tried more than 60 cases in her 20-year career and has established herself as a tenacious attorney with a proven ability to obtain favorable results for her clients. Watch her argument before the Ninth Circuit in this case here.

Julie M. Fleming is a senior counsel with Manning & Kass's Strategy, Writs and Appeals Team, the firm's own specialized SWAT unit. For the past 15 years, Ms. Fleming has specialized in police civil liability and municipal defense cases. She has been involved with numerous cases which have proceeded to the Ninth Circuit and the United States Supreme Court on police, constitutional, and employment law. Ms. Fleming has extensive experience handling civil litigation and appellate matters with an emphasis on employment and police law.