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9th Circuit: Sheriff Used Excessive Force

William Bernal, et al v. Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, et al Court: US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Docket: 22-15690, Opinion Date: July 7, 2023. Sacramento County Sheriffs’ Deputies encountered Celia and William Bernal (collectively “the Plaintiffs”) at their home during the Deputies’ investigation into allegations that Plaintiffs’ son planned a shooting at his school that day. During the interaction, the Deputies held Celia’s arms and used a twistlock to prevent her from leaving. The Deputies also pointed a firearm at William, forcibly restrained him, and put him in handcuffs. The district court held that the Deputies did not violate the Fourth Amendment by detaining Plaintiffs even in the absence of reasonable suspicion. The district court further found that the Deputies did not use excessive force during Plaintiffs’ detention and, even if they had, qualified immunity applied. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the Deputies in Plaintiffs’ Section 1983 action. The panel first considered whether the initial seizure of Plaintiffs was reasonable. Because Plaintiffs were detained but not arrested, the reasonableness of their detention depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers. The panel held that the Deputies had limited authority to briefly detain and question Plaintiffs about Ryan’s location due primarily to the exigencies inherent in preventing an imminent school shooting. Further, on balance, the panel concluded that the Deputies’ use of force against Celia was reasonable under the circumstances. The panel concluded that the district court erred in finding that the Deputies’ use of force against William was not excessive. The intrusion on William’s liberty was too great in the context of detaining a non-suspect witness.


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