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No, Really? Dragging Man Through Car Window is Excessive Force?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Is breaking a car window and dragging a person through it excessive force?

Our gut says it is. To Honolulu cops, such conduct is "reasonable" and worthy of qualified immunity.

Harry Coles was driving a Nissan sports car along Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu. According to Officer Joshua Eagle, Coles weaved between lanes and then slowed to a speed of around two miles per hour. (Coles disputes Eagles’ account.) Eagle ran the car’s license plate, learned that it was reported stolen, and signaled for Coles to pull over.

Instead of pulling over immediately, Coles made the first available right turn into a parking lot. Coles claims he stopped the car in a reasonable manner. Officer Eagle says Coles was driving it like he stole it.

It turns out, Coles had stolen the car.

The problem with driving a stolen car is that you don’t know how all the bells and whistles work. (Unless you’re Nick Cage in “Gone in 60 Seconds.” He was pretty competent.) In this case, Coles had trouble unlocking the car when Eagle and Officer Elton Robertson ordered him to exit the vehicle.

The only thing that Coles and the cops can agree on after that point is that Eagle smashed the driver’s side window with his baton, and the officers pulled the 5’9”, 200-pound Coles through the window

And so we arrive at Coles’ lawsuit.

Coles claimed that the cops violated his Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable seizure. The district court granted partial summary judgment for the defendants, finding that the force used to break the car window and pull Coles from the car was reasonable.

The court allowed Coles’ claims regarding an alleged post-extraction beating to move forward. After receiving instructions that the arrest was lawful — and breaking the window and pulling Coles out was reasonable — the jury ruled for the cops.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed both the grant of partial summary judgment and the jury verdict.

The appellate court found that the district court erred in granting partial summary judgment because the evidence presented genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the defendants used excessive force in extracting Coles. Balancing the nature and quality of the intrusion on Coles’ Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests, the Ninth Circuit concluded that lower court also erred in finding that the defendants didn’t employ excessive force as a matter of law.

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