WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered an appeals court to reconsider whether California lawmen could be sued for applying pepper spray to shackled anti-logging protesters.
A federal judge had ruled that the spray caused only “transient pain” and was a legitimate way to end protests. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit.
The Supreme Court on Monday sent the case back to the appeals court and said judges should review it again in light of a high court decision last year that said a police officer acted reasonably in removing a protester from a speech by then-Vice President Al Gore in 1994.
Humboldt County, the city of Eureka and two officers were sued by nine people who staged sit-ins at Pacific Lumber Co. headquarters and a congressman’s office over the cutting of ancient redwood trees.
When the demonstrators, who had chained themselves with a 25-pound steel device, would not leave, law officers swabbed pepper spray near the demonstrators’ eyes or sprayed it in their faces.
The government agencies contend they are immune from the suit because officers used only reasonable force and that the appeals court’s ruling “renders law enforcement impotent to perform its most fundamental task: to enforce the laws of the jurisdiction served.”
“This function is the very foundation of a law-based society — the alternative is anarchy,” they said in the appeal.
The protesters, part of the group EarthFirst!, said the force was excessive. The protests at the company offices and the office of Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., a logging supporter, were among multiple ones in the fall of 1997.
Lawmen usually ended the protests by using a cutting machine to separate and arrest demonstrators for trespassing.
Because of safety concerns, top lawmen decided to apply pepper spray to demonstrators whose arms were locked in metal bands. Some demonstrators unlocked themselves after pepper spray was applied to their eyelids. Others refused and were eventually cut loose with the grinding tool.
Deputies’ videotapes of the sit-ins show demonstrators screaming after the spray was applied. Some of demonstrators said they now have nightmares and panic attacks and suffer from depression.
“The demonstrators were immobile, peaceful and non-threatening,” they told the court. “Far from being a threat, the demonstrators were the most vulnerable people present.”
The case is Humboldt County v. Headwaters Forest Defense, 00-1649.