Excessive Force - On December 29, 1998, David Walker was shot four times by law enforcement in the driveway of his American Fork family home where he lived with his parents. His parents witnessed the shooting, as did his two sisters and his brother-in-law who lived next door on the same lot. Law enforcement was looking for David because his family had reported the car he was driving as stolen. His family reported his car as stolen because they knew David was suicidal, and were told that if the vehicle were reported stolen, law enforcement could assist in locating David.
David’s location was identified and, after he evaded the officers, an eventual slow-speed chase ensued. Officers from Orem, Pleasant Grove, and Utah County responded to various reports on dispatch, one of which stated that David was suicidal and returning to the family home. There, David exited the car, and family members came outside to see what the commotion was. Standing in front of the car, David held a small knife to his wrist. Within seconds, several shots were fired and hit David. After the shooting, law enforcement officers aggressively kept the family inside the house for questioning and did not permit them to follow David to the hospital, where he died approximately 90 minutes later.
In 1999, the Walker family filed a section 1983 civil action case in federal district court against the Orem City Police Department, the Pleasant Grove Police Department, and the Utah County Sheriff’s Department, charging law enforcement with excessive force and unlawful detention. In April 2004, the ACLU of Utah joined with the law firm of Strindberg Scholnick & Chamness in representing the Walker family in their case.
Two Utah County officers named in the original lawsuit asked to be dismissed from the case. The district court denied the officers’ Motion to Dismiss, and Utah County appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on that issue. On November 22, 2004, we submitted a brief in which we argued that the officers should not be dismissed from the case. The district court granted the Utah County defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment based on qualified immunity. Because all the other claims remaining in the suit were already being appealed to the Tenth Circuit, the Walker family requested permission to appeal the summary judgment decision, and on May 23, 2005, we submitted a brief arguing that the Utah County defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment. The brief argued that the Utah County officers violated clearly established law surrounding the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on illegal searches and seizures when they illegally detained the Walker family after David was shot.
On June 27, 2006, the Tenth Circuit issued an opinion in four consolidated appeals in the Walker case. The court held that, “the lengthy detention alleged in this case was unreasonable and was not justified by either the need for investigation of a crime or control of a crime scene. … [P]laintiffs have adequately alleged a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.” However, the court also held that the reasonable duration of such a detention was not “clearly established” at the time of the events in question, and as a result, it allowed the dismissal of claims against Utah County and two Utah County Sheriff’s officers. In other words, the court held that plaintiffs’ allegations amounted to an illegal detention, but, because previous cases did not define the reasonable duration of such a detention, the officers could not be expected to know that their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and therefore were not liable for their actions. In the future, law enforcement officers should be aware that similar detentions may violate the Fourth Amendment, based on this decision. In the opinion, the appellate court refused to dismiss the suit against two police officers, one from Orem and the other from Pleasant Grove.
Consistent with the appellate court’s ruling, the two officers were tried by a jury in October 2007. The jury ruled against the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the courageous action by the Walker family in pursuing this suit was not in vain. The case stands for the proposition that unreasonable officer conduct is not shielded by the cloak of immunity. Additionally, this case set the standard for unlawful detentions by police in similar situations.