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WASHINGTON-Municipalities will enjoy some immunity against civil rights lawsuits because of the Supreme Court's decision in an Oklahoma case last week.
The high court's decision in Board of County Commissioners of Bryan County, Okla., vs. Brown et al. voided an award levied against Bryan County after one of its police officers allegedly used excessive force during a traffic stop.
Jill Brown claimed that Reserve Deputy Stacey Burns had yanked her from a stopped truck, forced her to the ground and injured her knees so severely that she had to have surgery. She sued Mr. Burns, Sheriff B.J. Moore and the county, holding among other things that the county was responsible because the sheriff, who was related to Mr. Burns, had failed to review Mr. Burns' background adequately. Mr. Burns had a record of misdemeanor convictions before he was hired, but only felony convictions automatically bar someone from being hired for law enforcement jobs under Oklahoma law.
Although a federal district court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Ms. Brown could sue the county, the high court ruled 5-4 that the county was not liable for "what can only be described as a deviation from Sheriff Moore's ordinary hiring practices." Ms. Brown did not show that the decision to hire Mr. Burns reflected a "conscious disregard" for a risk that he would use excessive force in violation of federal law, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority.
The district court had earlier ruled that Ms. Brown could not sue Sheriff Moore, and the Supreme Court's ruling does not affect any legal action taken against Mr. Burns.