U.S. Ninth Circuit - The FindLaw 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Student's Water Balloon Excessive Force Verdict Reversed

Unfortunately for Jay Russell Shafer, a recent Ninth Circuit decision has turned his jury verdict awarding him six figures for enduring a constitutional violation into a loss. Shafer convinced a jury that when two city police officers knocked him to the ground, face first, for refusing to drop a water balloon, one of those officers violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.

While the appellate court found that his constitutional rights were violated due to the amount of force that was used, it also found that the officer whom the jury found liable was actually immune from liability.

Details of the Case

The facts of this case date back nearly half a decade. In October 2009, students on University of California Santa Barbara's campus were basically having a campus wide party. Loud music was playing all over, students were out en masse, and some were throwing water-balloons. When a group of soaked students reported to police that they had been randomly struck with water-balloons, the officers took action. Almost immediately the officers spotted Shafer and a friend, both holding water-balloons.

The officers then ordered that Shafer and his friend drop the balloons. Shafer questioned why, while his friend complied. Upon repeating their command and Shafer not complying, the officers began to use force to effectuate compliance. In doing so, Shafer was brought to the ground, face first, because one officer swept his leg (notably, something the Karate Kid wouldn't even do). After being taken down, Shafer was cuffed and arrested. After the ordeal, Shafer filed suit for excessive force under 42 USC 1983, however after motions, he was only left with one officer as a defendant (as sticking a municipality with liability is incredibly challenging in these cases).

While the district court ruled against the remaining officer's claim of qualified immunity, the appellate court found that progressive escalation from commands to force were not unreasonable given the circumstances and the officer's (and officers generally) understanding of constitutional rights.

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