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Appeals court weighs suit in US Marshals shooting

Published:Wednesday | January 28, 2015 | 12:00 AM


AN APPEALS court is deciding whether deputy US marshals who shot and wounded a teenage driver eight years ago may be sued in federal court, a case that is unfolding amid a national debate about police use of force and the legal protections afforded to law enforcement.

The US 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 analysing a police pursuit. A similar case was decided by the US 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.

Legal burden

An appeals court ruling in favour 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 is a potentially heavy legal burden, given past court decisions that give law enforcement leeway in firing at fleeing suspects if they feel endangered.

The January 3, 2007, shooting occurred when deputy marshals serving an eviction notice at a Washington, DC, apartment complex came upon a 16-year-old they suspected of having stolen a car.