Court reinstates excessive-force suit against University of Arizona cop

A federal appeals court reinstated an excessive force lawsuit against a University of Arizona Police officer who shot a woman with a knife four times, saying a person should able to “walk down her driveway holding a knife without being shot.” (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Monday reinstated an excessive force lawsuit against a University of Arizona police officer who shot a woman four times as she walked toward another woman while carrying a kitchen knife.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s finding in favor of the officer, noting that jurors could find that a person has “a constitutional right to walk down her driveway holding a knife without being shot.”

The appeals court rejected the district court’s finding that the officer’s actions were reasonable, saying that was a question for a jury to decide. It also rejected the finding that the officer enjoyed qualified immunity for his actions, saying that would depend on what a jury determined to be the facts in the case.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the case Monday, but an attorney for Amy Hughes, the woman who was shot, hailed the appeals court’s decision.

“The 9th Circuit’s opinion that Amy Hughes is entitled to a jury trial and that the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity is a victory for civil rights and common sense,” said Vince Rabago, the lawyer who argued Hughes’ case.

The case began in May 2010, when Tucson Police received a call for a woman hacking at a tree with a knife. The University of Arizona Police Department took the call and Cpl. Andrew Kisela responded with two other officers.

When they arrived, they found Hughes carrying a large kitchen knife and walking down her driveway toward Sharon Chadwick, who later told police that she lived with Hughes, who “had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking medication.”

Chadwick said Hughes “was composed and content as she exited the house, holding the kitchen knife down to her side with the blade pointing backwards,” according to the court’s opinion. “Ms. Chadwick submits that she was never in fear, and did not feel that Ms. Hughes was a threat.”

But police, separated from the women by a chain-link fence, pulled their guns and demanded at least twice that Hughes drop the knife, which she did not do. In an episode that unfolded in less than a minute, the court said, Kisela said he saw Hughes raise the knife and he opened fire, hitting her four times and causing her to fall at Chadwick’s feet.

Chadwick and the other two officers later said that they did not see Hughes raise the knife.

When considering the amount of force used, the ruling said, the court uses three primary factors: the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest.

No crime had been reported, since the officers were responding to a “check welfare” call on Hughes, said the opinion by Judge William Sessions III, sitting from the U.S. District of Vermont. Hughes also was not resisting arrest, he said, leaving only the question of whether she posed an immediate threat to others.

“Kisela was undoubtedly concerned for Ms. Chadwick’s safety” in the moment, Sessions wrote, but “the record does not support Corporal Kisela’s perception of an immediate threat.”

Chadwick told police afterwards that “Hughes would have given her the knife if asked, and that the police should have afforded her that opportunity,” Sessions wrote.

“There was no crime reported … university police turned it into an armed suspect call,” Rabago said. “He made the worst assumption and shot first, asked questions later.”

Rabago said Hughes “still suffers from significant pain, shaking, difficulty writing her name sometimes, and just the emotional stress and trauma still affects her to this day.”