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Court finds Waukesha police used excessive force

Proof and Hearsay

Crime, courts and legal issues in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin

April 30, 2012

By Bruce Vielmetti of the Journal Sentinel

April 30, 2012 0

A federal appeals court has found that Waukesha police used excessive force when they shot a suspected drunken driver four times with rubber bullets in 2005.

One of the shots caused a six-inch gash in the driver’s ankle that required 30 stitches.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2-1 decision that a trial judge should have granted Tamara Phillips’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, despite a jury’s verdict in favor of the police.

The court found that the force was unreasonable under the circumstances, which included that fact that Phillips was very drunk, or impaired, did not actively resist, and was not even in position to drive the car when she was shot four times in the legs.

“In an excessive force case, while we accept the factual inferences made by the jury, we must independently review the jury’s interpretation of what is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The court found that the use of an "SL6 baton launcher" was at the “high end” of the less-lethal force spectrum and amounted to a “significant intrusion” on Phillips’ 4th Amendment rights.

The case will now return to U.S. District Court in Milwaukee only to determine the extent of Phillips' damages.

Police said they believed Phillips was driving a stolen car, because when the plate number was first run, it came back as being on a car reported stolen. But another officer had clarified that it was Phillips who reported her silver Honda stolen, and then had the same plate number assigned to her new car, the black Nissan that another driver called in to say might be under operation by an impaired driver.

“After the officers made the initial determination that they were dealing with a car theft, they appear to have had difficulty acknowledging subsequent information challenging their assumption,” the court wrote.

The officers had her vehicle surrounded with seven squad cars, and behind the vehicle there was a steep drop-off. There was nowhere for Phillips to go,” the court wrote.

An officer “told the dispatch that the driver was ‘secured, not in handcuffs, but stabilized in the car.’ The scene was ‘secured’ at least fifteen minutes before officers shot Phillips. During that time, Phillips had given no indication that she intended to harm the officers or anyone else.”

In dissent, Judge John Daniel Tinder wrote that he believed the force was reasonable. Judge Ann Clair Williams wrote the majority opinion, joined by Judge Diane Wood.

Bruce Vielmetti thumbnail
About Bruce Vielmetti

Bruce Vielmetti writes about legal affairs.

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