Judge In California Dismisses Pepper Spray Suit

HULTGREN arne at snowcrest.net
Mon Oct 26 23:31:14 EST 1998


Judge In California Dismisses Pepper Spray Suit
            8.16 p.m. ET (116 GMT) October 26, 1998 (REUTERS)

 SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge ruled Monday that police used
 "reasonable force'' when they smeared pepper spray around the eyes of
 California environmental activists to stop an anti-logging protest. 

 Ending a case that had already deadlocked one jury, U.S. District Judge Vaughn
 Walker threw out a suit brought by the protesters over their confrontation with
 police last year in the local offices of a California congressman. 

 Walker, who had originally scheduled a fresh trial for Nov. 16, decided Monday
 to dismiss the case entirely, saying he was convinced that "the officers acted
 reasonably in using (pepper spray) as a pain compliance technique'' to end
 nonviolent sit-ins. 

 Lawyers for the protesters planned to appeal Walker's decision, saying it should
 be up to the community to determine what constitutes reasonable law
 enforcement techniques. ''Whether or not something is unreasonable force is
 determined by the community, and this judge has placed himself in lieu of the
 community,'' said attorney Brendan Cummings. 

 "Half of the jurors in the first trial found that, and most of the nation who saw the
 videos (of police applying the pepper spray) found it to be outrageous and
 unreasonable. We believe it belongs in front of a jury.'' 

 The suit stemmed from three separate incidents last year in which police either
 shot pepper spray or smeared the burning solution around the eyes of activists
 opposed to logging in the Headwaters Forest, the largest privately owned stand
 of ancient redwood trees in the world. 

 One incident in the Eureka, California, office of Republican Rep. Frank Riggs
 was videotaped, and images of the young activists howling and writhing as police
 swabbed the stinging spray around their eyes were broadcast on national
 television. 

 In August, a jury deadlocked four to four after weeks of testimony from both
 protesters and police, who said that pepper spray was the only safe way to
 remove activists who had locked their arms together with metal sleeves. 

 Walker said Monday that pain compliance techniques such as the use of pepper
 spray on uncooperative arrestees had been repeatedly upheld by courts and there
 was no evidence to indicate pepper spray caused anything but temporary pain. 

 Defense lawyer Nancy Delaney, who represented the police in the trial, said the
 judge's decision was a vote for law enforcement in the increasingly polarized
 confrontation between the activist environmental group Earth First! and logging
 companies in northern California's Humboldt County. 

 "We're certainly pleased that it has been recognized that the law enforcement
 officers acted appropriately under the circumstances,'' Delaney said. 

 "It really was a case of no good deed goes unpunished. They genuinely were
 making an effort not to injure someone, and their reward was a year of litigation.'' 

 But members of the environmental group said the judge had sent a chilling
 message to activists, who have fought for almost a decade to preserve
 California's dwindling stands of redwood trees and surrounding areas, which are
 home to endangered plants and animals. 

 "We think people need to decide if this is the kind of society they want to live in,
 where federal court judges condone the use of torture against nonviolent people,''
 said Alicia Littletree, a spokeswoman for the group. 

 "We wonder if this is going to give law enforcement carte blanche to use
 whatever means necessary to remove us and destroy our movement.'' 
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