Judge Orders Chasse Trial Split In Two

from the Portland Mercury, June 4, 2008

A Federal Judge has ordered that the James Chasse jr. trial be split in two this morning, between the individual police officers and the City of Portland, in a move that could drastically affect the outcome of the case.

Chasse Family Attorney Tom Steenson: Determined before court today…

Federal Judge Garr King this morning approved the city’s motion to bifurcate the case, splitting it into two trials, one to decide whether Officer Christopher Humphreys, Sergeant Kyle Nice, and Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Burton were liable for Chasse’s death, and one to decide whether the city, (and also the county, and American Medical Response, the ambulance firm) were responsible for Chasse’s death by failing to adequately train and supervise those officers. There’s lengthy analysis after the jump.

While the city and county will end up paying for damages in both trials, the decision to split the case in two is controversial, since Steenson has been arguing all along that the city and its cops were dually responsible for what happened.

Importantly, Judge King granted the motion to bifurcate the case based on the city’s assurance that it will not rely on a “qualified immunity” defense. In other words, Officers Humphreys, Nice and Burton, do not plan to argue that they are immune from prosecution because the law, and the city’s policies, did not explicitly prohibit them from handling Chasse the way they did. Often, police officers use the qualified immunity defense to avoid prosecution in cases like these. For example, a boiled-down qualified immunity defense is: “You didn’t tell me I couldn’t hit him in the head with my fist.”

It’s likely that the city would prefer to split the cases in two so that Steenson is less able to show a jury that the officers involved are representative of the systemic failure of the police bureau to train and adequately supervise its officers. Strategically, it makes the case harder for Steenson to win by breaking it down into smaller, less emotionally loaded chunks. But waiving the qualified immunity defense also places the individual officers at higher risk of being found liable for what happened in the first trial.

Evidently the city feels it has a pretty strong case.

Judge King also denied the city’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss injunctive relief in the case today. Essentially, the city was arguing that if it is found guilty of causing Chasse’s death through lack of proper procedures, by, for example, ignoring one of the key recommendations of the 2004 Parc Report to raise the level of impact strikes to the head, sternum and ribs to “deadly force” level, it shouldn’t have to do anything to change its policies and procedures after the trial. Judge King said it’s way too early to tell.

Chasse’s father, brother, and mother were in court today. So was Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Burton.

Chasse’s father, James Senior: Walks into court this morning…

Before court this morning, Steenson said: “The Chasse family has been very committed to seeing that the city makes changes to its policies and procedures.” On the bifurcation, he said the city and individuals’ responsibility “should not be separate,” and he is likely to be disappointed by today’s outcome.

The case continues. Currently a trial date is set for September 2009, although Judge King this morning talked about moving for an earlier trial, possibly in early 2009. You can also find out more about the case here.

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