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Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt

 

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Nine environmental activists and an environmental group brought a section 1983 civil rights action[1] against Humboldt County, the county sheriff, city police, and sheriff’s deputies and police officers. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants’ use of pepper spray during three protests constituted excessive and unreasonable force in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. After a mistrial, the Northern District of California entered judgment as a matter of law for the defendants. The plaintiffs appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the question of excessive force was for the jury and that disputed facts regarding the defendants’ knowledge and the reasonableness of the use of pepper spray precluded the district court’s finding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law.

In the fall of 1997, environmental activists staged three nonviolent protests against the logging of ancient redwood trees in the Headwaters Forest along California’s northern coast:[2] the Scotia Protest, the Bear Creek Protest, and the Riggs Protest.[3] During each protest, two to seven protesters linked themselves together using self-releasing lock-down devices known as “black bears.”[4] Although the protesters were not physically daunting and posed no immediate safety threat, the officers used pepper spray to arrest the protesters.[5] Defendants videotaped each of the arrests. The videotapes revealed that the officers did not attempt to negotiate with the protesters before applying the pepper spray. Sometimes the officers used Q-tips to apply the pepper spray to the eyelids of the protesters; other times the officers simply sprayed the pepper spray directly into the faces of the protestors. This occurred multiple times during each protest. The videos demonstrated that the protesters were in tremendous pain from the pepper spray. To ease the pain, the officers sprayed water on the protesters; however, the video showed that this actually caused more pain for at least one of the protesters. In two of the protests, the officers ultimately used a drill to dislodge the black bears from the protesters.

The protesters sued the officers under section 1983 for violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, claiming that use of the pepper spray was excessive and unreasonable force. Although none of the protesters sought medical treatment for physical injuries, the protesters sought damages for pain and emotional trauma, as well as punitive damages. After a nine-day trial, plaintiffs completed their case-in-chief. The district court granted qualified immunity as a matter of law to two of the officers and dismissed the case against them.[6] After six hours of deliberations, the jury was deadlocked with respect to the claims against the remaining officers. The district court refused to give a formal Allen charge[7] to the jury and declared a mistrial. The district court set a new trial date and took defendants’ renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under submission. Eight weeks later, the district court granted the officers’ renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

Plaintiffs appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the district court erroneously granted judgment as a matter of law by failing to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and by failing to resolve all inferences and conflicts in the evidence in plaintiffs’ favor. The Ninth Circuit then addressed the plaintiffs’ allegations of excessive force by balancing the intrusion on their individual Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.[8] This requires the court to balance: 1) the severity of the crime, 2) whether the suspects posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, 3) whether the suspects were actively resisting arrest by flight, and 4) any other exigent circumstances.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s characterization of the “quality of the intrusion.”[9] The district court found the use of pepper spray was minimal because it did not involve the use of deadly force or a significant level of physical force. The Ninth Circuit agreed that fact was relevant, but not dispositive, and reasoned that the evidence suggested that the protesters suffered excruciating pain when the officers applied the pepper spray to their eyelids. The court also disagreed with the district court’s emphasis on the government’s interests in speedy arrests, preventing organized lawlessness, ensuring safety of others, and deference to the officers’ split-second judgment. The Ninth Circuit held that the district court relied too heavily on the government’s interests and made inferences from the evidence against the nonmoving party, rather than in its favor. Particularly relevant to the court’s conclusion was the severity of the crime. Here, the only crime committed by the protesters was trespass, and the officers had alternative means available to effect the arrests. In short, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court because the district court’s “conclusion that the officers did not use excessive force to effect the arrests of the protestors as a matter of law [was] untenable given the [conflicting] evidence at trial. [A] fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiffs on the evidence presented.”[10]


[1] Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1994).

[2] Timber harvesting in the Headwaters Forest has been the subject of numerous lawsuits. See, e.g., Coho Salmon v. Pac. Lumber Co., 61 F. Supp. 2d 1001 (N.D. Cal. 1999); Ecological Rights Found. v. Pac. Lumber Co. 61 F. Supp. 2d 1042 (N.D. Cal. 1999), rev’d, 230 F.3d 1141 (9th Cir. 2000). Located in Humboldt County, California, the Headwaters Forest is owned by Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO). In 1996, PALCO reached a land exchange agreement with California and the United States, establishing a forest reserve jointly managed by the federal and state governments and a harvest area. PALCO agreed to implement sustainable-yield harvesting techniques to satisfy political and legal pressures regarding several endangered species. Headwaters Forest is home to the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl, two species protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544 (1994). See Marbled Murrelet v. Babbitt, 182 F.3d 1091 (9th Cir. 1999) (discussing the ESA and the Headwaters Forest).

[3] The Scotia Protest took place at the headquarters of the Pacific Lumber Company. The Bear Creek Protest took place at a remote logging site on private property owned by Pacific Lumber Company, and the Riggs Protest took place in the Eureka, CA office of Congressman Frank Riggs.

[4] A black bear is a ten to twenty-five pound steel cylinder with a rod or post welded into the center. Protesters place their arms into the steel cylinders and attach steel bracelets worn around their wrists to the center rods in the black bears by using mountain climbers’ carabiners. Each black bear links protesters together. When in place, the devices completely immobilize their arms and prevent their separation. By simply using their hands to unclip the carabiners on the inside of the cylinder, the protesters can disengage themselves from the devices. However, if the protesters do not voluntarily agree to release themselves, the lock-down devices make it difficult for law enforcement officers to take the protesters into custody upon arrest.

[5] Before these three protests, law enforcement personnel used Makita grinders to cut through the steel and forcibly remove the black bears from the protesters. However, the officers claim to have had a growing concern about the danger of using the Makita grinders. In the summer of 1997, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department explored alternatives for affecting the arrest of protesters in lock-down devices–including the use of oleoresin capsicum aerosol (“OC” or “pepper spray”).

[6] The Ninth Circuit also held that the district court erred in granting qualified immunity to two of the officers because there were disputed historical facts concerning the reasonableness of the force used.

[7] Allen v. United States, 164 U.S. 492 (1896). An Allen charge is a supplemental jury instruction that a trial judge may give when a jury announces that it is unable to agree on a verdict. Without being coercive, an Allen charge urges jurors to keep trying to reach a verdict.

[8] Headwaters Forest Def. v. County of Humboldt, 211 F.3d 1121, 1133 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)).

[9] Id. at 1134.

[10] Id. at 1140 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)).

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