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Appeals court weighs suit in US Marshals shooting

•  Recent Cases     updated  2015/01/30 09:33


An appeals court is deciding whether deputy U.S. marshals who shot and wounded a teenage driver eight years ago may be sued in federal court, a case that's unfolding amid a national debate about police use of force and the legal protections afforded to law enforcement.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments last month and could issue an opinion soon.

The case of driver Michael Fenwick raises questions about how police can deal with fleeing individuals and the role video should play in analyzing a police pursuit. A case that presented similar issues was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last year after fascinated justices watched dashboard camera video of the chase.

The key issue for the appeals court is whether the deputies are entitled to qualified immunity, a legal principle that shields government officials from being sued unless their actions violate clearly established constitutional rights. A lower-court judge in 2013 allowed the case to go forward, saying there were legitimate questions about whether excessive force was used, but rejected many other arguments from Fenwick's lawyer.

An appeals court ruling in favor of the marshals would end the case. But if the judges prove sympathetic to arguments that the shooting was unjustified, the case would be returned to the trial court, where it could ultimately reach a jury and add to a body of law that is still developing. That's a potentially heavy legal burden, given past court decisions that give law enforcement leeway in firing at fleeing suspects if they feel endangered.

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