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Appeals court says Springdale officer acted reasonably in detaining teens

by Ron Wood | August 17, 2021 at 7:24 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought against a Springdale police officer who stopped two teens and briefly held them at gunpoint.

A federal judge in March 2020 refused to dismiss claims against Officer Lamont Marzolf, who was accused of violating the civil rights of two teens he stopped and detained while they were walking home from their grandparents' house on a rainy night in 2018.

The lawsuit was filed by Casondra Pollreis, on behalf of herself and her sons, identified as W.Y. and S.Y.

Marzolf was helping other officers search for four suspects who had fled on foot, possibly armed, the night of Jan. 8, 2018, according to the lawsuit. Marzolf had set up a perimeter in a residential neighborhood on Lynn Street when two teens, ages 12 and 14, approached him on foot. Marzolf stopped the teens.

The teens were told to lie face down on the ground at gunpoint, and they were subsequently handcuffed and searched, according to the lawsuit. The boys' mother sued on behalf of her children claiming Marzolf and another officer, Josh Kirmer, violated their civil rights.

The officers asked U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks to dismiss the case, claiming qualified immunity. Brooks released Kirmer and partially released Marzolf from the lawsuit, but stopped short of dismissing the case.

Brooks found Marzolf's initial stop of the teens was reasonable, but their continued detention presented questions of law a jury should decide.

Brooks found facts that came to light after the initial stop didn't support a reasonable suspicion by Marzolf the teens were the fleeing suspects. Brooks said evidence, including police video, didn't show suspicious behavior by the teens, they weren't out of breath and were entirely compliant with Marzolf's commands, the judge said.

Second, the boys' mother was on scene almost immediately and identified herself and the boys. Instead of questioning her further, Marzolf directed her to return home, according to the judge's opinion and ruling.

The boys' stepfather then approached Marzolf and told him the boys had just been at their grandparents' home, but Marzolf continued to point his gun at the boys while they were face down on the ground, according to Brooks.

Once he knew the boys' names, Marzolf knew they weren't the suspects being sought, Brooks said.

Brooks denied summary judgment on four of the claims brought on behalf of the boys against Marzolf, prolonging an investigative detention; illegally arresting the boys; using excessive force against the boys; and frisking one of them for weapons.

The 8th Circuit judges Monday disagreed with Brooks' ruling.

"The issue is whether Officer Marzolf violated the boys' clearly established constitutional rights. Under the governing precedent, we conclude he did not. And so, we reverse," the judges wrote.

The appeals court held Marzolf was justified in taking the amount of time needed to identify the boys and to determine if they were, in fact, two people fleeing from the crash.

The court said there was no de facto arrest because the entire encounter lasted seven minutes, while the boys were handcuffed at most for two minutes. In addition to the short time frame, video shows immediately before Marzolf handcuffed and frisked one of the boys he had moved his left hand behind his back and touched his waist.

"Considering that hand motion together with what Officer Marzolf heard before the encounter about one of the male suspects being pursued usually carrying a gun, he reasonably used handcuffs briefly to control the scene and protect officer safety," the court said.

The judges concluded Marzolf was justified in frisking one of the boys because he had a reasonable suspicion the people he was trying to catch were armed and dangerous.

The appeals court said Marzolf didn't use unreasonable force when he pointed his gun at the boys while he waited for backup and before the situation was under control.

Brooks granted summary judgment to Marzolf on claims by the boys' mother he used excessive force against her by pointing a stun gun at her.

All claims against Kirmer were dismissed.

Summary judgment is a decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented in the legal pleadings and documents filed without a trial.

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Qualified immunity

Protects public officials from being sued for damages unless they violated “clearly established” law of which a reasonable official in his position would have known. It aims to protect civil servants from the fear of litigation in performing discretionary functions entrusted to them by law. Government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct doesn’t violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

Source: uslegal.com

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