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Headwaters Ahead: Did Davis Pepper Spray Cop Use Excessive Force?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 21, 2011 12:15 PM

Oh no! Peaceful protesters have invaded UC Davis to sit on the campus quad as part of the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests. Clearly, there is only one response for such a "threat." Pepper spray.

Our knowledge of police officer training is limited to the Police Academy movies - which probably aren't accurate - so we're not going to pretend to know what aspiring officers are told about breaking up a peaceful protest. We're case law nerds: all we can tell you is that, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, pepper spraying peaceful protesters is probably a bad idea.

The case on point? Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt.

In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police officers who pepper sprayed peaceful protesters were not entitled to qualified immunity because "the use of pepper spray on the protestors' eyes and faces was plainly in excess of the force necessary under the circumstances, and no reasonable officer could have concluded otherwise."

The appellate court further noted that the use of pepper spray against peaceful protesters is only "reasonable as a general policy to bring an arrestee under control."

If you haven't seen the UC Davis pepper spray video footage depicting campus police officers "casually" dousing a row of seated protesters, check out the video below and decide for yourself whether the officers needed pepper spray to bring these protesters under control.

If you're an attorney whose phone/inbox is exploding today with UC Davis pepper spray victims who want to sue campus police officers for excessive force, you might want to take those calls. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stance on qualified immunity appears to be on the protesters' side.

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