Affording police more protection from civil lawsuits, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that an officer protecting the vice president acted reasonably when he pushed a demonstrator into a van.
Sued by the uninjured demonstrator, the officer should have been granted immunity and the case dismissed because the policeman suspected a threat, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.
Seven justices concurred with Kennedy's conclusion, while Justice David H. Souter concurred in part and dissented in part. The ruling in Saucier vs. Katz, 99-1977, makes it more difficult to get lawsuits against officers before a jury.
Taking the issue beyond protection of the vice president, Kennedy wrote that officers should be granted immunity even if force resulted from "reasonable, but mistaken beliefs" about the situation they faced.
The case originated when animal rights activist Elliot Katz was arrested during a speech by Vice President Al Gore in 1994, when the Presidio Army base in San Francisco was turned into a national park.
Military Police Officer Donald Saucier hustled Katz away from a waist-high fence separating Gore from the public after he attempted to unfurl a 4-by-3-foot cloth banner reading, "Please Keep Animal Torture Out of Our National Parks."
Katz was released but mounted a challenge to Saucier's use of force. The case had not gone to trial but came to the high court to determine whether Saucier had immunity.
Television videotape shows an officer pushing Katz into the back of a van but no other struggle. Some of the justices had watched the news footage before they heard oral arguments in the case in March, prompting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to question whether the case was worth the court's time.
"I just kept looking at it over and over and I came away thinking, 'Why are we here?' " she said in annoyance during the arguments.
Kennedy made clear that in this case, there were reasonable grounds for Saucier to suspect a threat existed to the vice president.
The officer acted "within the bounds of appropriate police responses" after Katz approached the fence. The officer "did not know the full extent of the threat" or "how many other persons there might be who, in concert with respondent [Katz], posed a threat to the security of the vice president."
The 294,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police group, praised the ruling.
"It gives an officer the immunity he needs to pursue lawful actions," said Executive Director Jim Pasco. "It does not give officers license to run amok, but it does provide them with the protection they need as they perform their duties."
The FOP filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Saucier, and the American Civil Liberties Union did the same on behalf of Katz.
David Rudovsky, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who wrote the ACLU's arguments, said the ruling sets a bad precedent.
"In our view, the decision rests on the illogical proposition that police officers can reasonably believe they are entitled to use unreasonable force," he said. "Even if a judge said you didn't have to use that much force, this allows the judge to say, 'Even though it was excessive, I'm finding immunity because the officer could have thought it was reasonable.' "
The ruling reversed a federal trial judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They found a jury should hear Katz's argument and that Saucier was not entitled to "qualified immunity" from being sued.
Government lawyers had argued that qualified immunity is intended to protect officers from being sued unless they are "plainly incompetent" or knowingly violate the law.