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Woman Shot by Police for Holding a Knife Can Bring Excessive Force Claim

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on November 29, 2016 12:14 PM

An Arizona police officer must stand trial for shooting a woman who was walking in her driveway with a knife, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a lower court that had dismissed the case on a motion for summary judgment. Judge William K. Sessions III said a jury should decide whether the officer used excessive force. He also said the officer was not, without further proceedings in the excessive force case, entitled to immunity.

"(A) jury ... could find that she had a constitutional right to walk down her driveway holding a knife without being shot," Sessions said in the unanimous decision.

Shot through a Fence

The case arose after an incident in 2010 near the University of Arizona. Andrew Kisela, a university police officer, was responding to a "welfare check" about a woman reportedly hacking a tree with a knife. When he arrived with two other officers, Amy Hughes was standing in a driveway carrying a large kitchen knife.

Sharon Chadwick, her roommate, was also standing near the driveway. She said Hughes was composed and content as she exited the house, holding the kitchen knife down to her side with the blade pointing backwards. Chadwick said she did not feel threatened.

As Hughes approached Chadwick, the officers drew their guns and ordered her to drop the knife. Hughes did not drop the knife and continued to move toward Chadwick.

In court papers, Kisela swore that Hughes raised the knife as if to attack. A chain link fence at the edge of the property prevented the officers from getting any closer to the two women. Because the top of the fence obstructed his aim, Kisela dropped down and shot Hughes four times through the fence.

Mental State

Chadwick told police that her roommate had a bipolar disorder and was taking medication. She said that Hughes did not understand what was happening and that the police should have allowed her to ask for the knife before shooting her.

In its decision, the court noted that the officer could have done something less intrusive before shooting. It will be up to the jury to decide if Hughes may have been impaired and whether the officer acted reasonably under the circumstances, the court said.

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