Maxwell v. County of San Diego

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Constitutional Law
  • Date Filed: 02-14-2013
  • Case #: 10-56671; 10-56706
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Farris for the Court; Circuit Judge Clifton; Dissent by Circuit Judge Ikuta
  • Full Text Opinion

Where a police officer impedes a gunshot victim’s access to medical care and, thus, places the victim in a worse position than she was in, the police officer is liable for a due process violation because, under the “danger creation” exception, the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Kristin Maxwell-Bruce was shot by her husband, and she died en route to an air ambulance. Responding officers delayed the ambulance’s departure to question Kristin. Officers separated Jim Maxwell, Kristin’s father, from his family for several hours. Upon hearing of Kristin’s death, Jim attempted to get to his family. An officer pepper sprayed Jim, struck him with a baton, and handcuffed him to keep everyone separate for interviewing. Family members brought suit against the San Diego County Sheriff’s officers for constitutional violations and the Viejas Fire Department for tort damages. The Court held that the Sheriffs were not entitled to qualified immunity under the “danger creation” exception, because the officers placed Kristin in a more dangerous situation than they found her by impeding her access to medical care. It also concluded that the detention and separation of the Maxwells constituted an unreasonable seizure, noting that detention without suspicion of criminal activity is a lesser state interest, and no exigent circumstances justified the prolonged detention. Further, the Court determined that, because there was no evidence that Jim resisted arrest, the use of pepper spray constituted excessive force. The Court held that the two ranking officers were also individually liable, because they knew of, participated in, or failed to prevent the violations. The Court also determined that the Viejas Band, by virtue of operating a fire department with another district, did not waive its sovereign immunity; such waiver by a tribe must be explicit and unequivocal. However, the Court concluded that the individual paramedics did not carry tribal immunity, because the immunity only transfers to individuals if a suit is based upon the powers they possess in their official capacities, not suits arising out of actions taken in their official capacities. AFFIRMED in part, REVERSED in part, and REMANDED.

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