Legal language: Inmate’s coarse wording does not bar suit against cops

A federal appeals court reinstated an Arizona prison inmate’s excessive force lawsuit against Phoenix police, saying his claim that two officers “beat the crap” out of him was not so vague that his case should have been rejected. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday reinstated an Arizona inmate’s excessive force lawsuit against the Phoenix Police Department, saying his allegation that officers “beat the crap out of” him is not unconstitutionally vague.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Charles Byrd’s use of “colloquial shorthand” in his handwritten complaint, that claimed he lost 70 percent of his sight in the incident, made clear that the officers’ use of force was “unreasonably excessive.”

The decision reversed a federal district judge who had twice rejected Byrd’s suit.

“We think it’s a great opinion,” said Mark Kressel, one of the attorneys who represented Byrd in his appeal.

In a written statement, the Phoenix City Attorney’s Office said that the district court “properly dismissed the case in its early stages” and that while it disagrees with the circuit court ruling, it respects the process.

“We are confident that the actions of the police officers complied with the Constitution,” the statement said. “And the officers believe that in the near future, the district court will conclude that their conduct met all constitutional requirements.”

Byrd said the case began when Phoenix Officers Robert McKinney and Timothy Thiebaut stopped him for riding his bike without a headlight. Byrd claims he was not on probation or parole, not engaged in any criminal activity and there were no warrants for his arrest at the time of the stop.

His complaint said the officers first searched him and then proceeded to “beat the crap out” of him, causing him to fear for his life.

But court records also show that sometime during the incident, Byrd threw some methamphetamine that the officers found “a distance away from where he was at.” Byrd subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit possession of a dangerous drug and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Byrd, who has filed at least three other suits against Maricopa County agencies, had his first complaint in this case rejected by U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, who allowed the inmate a chance to correct the deficiencies in the case and file it again.

But Byrd’s second attempt was no better, and Wake dismissed the claim for vagueness and for violating a 1994 case, Heck v. Humphrey, that said prisoners cannot seek damages if a judgment in their favor would imply that their conviction was invalid.

Wake wrote that Byrd “does not identify what force the officers used or why they used it … moreover, Plaintiff does not assert that he was not resisting arrest, did not possess a weapon, and did not pose a threat to the police or others.”

“Thus, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim regarding the officers use of force,” the district court ruling said.

Besides finding that Byrd’s language was clear enough to allow an excessive force suit to proceed, the appeals court rejected the lower court’s Heck finding. The appellate panel noted that since Byrd pleaded guilty to the drug charge without any evidence being presented in his case, there is no way a judgment for Byrd in the civil suit against the officers could invalidate his plea.

The statement from the city attorney’s office said the latest ruling merely gives Byrd “the opportunity to discover evidence to support what are now his bare allegations.”

But Kressel welcomed the opportunity for Byrd to take his case back to district court where he “will continue his cause.”

“We’re very excited the 9th Circuit is making it easier for victims of police brutality to seek damages,” Kressel said.

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