In a case of first impression in Massachusetts, RJA attorney Andy Gambaccini recently was successful in establishing important precedent concerning the ability of a law enforcement officer to use force in order to prevent the destruction of evidence.
Deptula v. City of Worcester is a federal civil rights case in which narcotics officers with the Worcester Police Department sought to execute a search warrant on the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer. When officers approached the individual at a local business, the individual removed a fake thumb that was being used to hide pills and began ingesting the drugs. Observing that action, an officer delivered two palm strikes to the side of the individual’s head to prevent the continued destruction of the evidence. The individual later sued, alleging that officers had used unreasonable force in the interaction.
Following discovery, the plaintiff filed a motion seeking the entry of judgment in his favor, arguing in part that, even under the officer’s version of events, there was no legal authority that permitted the officer to use force to prevent the destruction of evidence.
In opposing that motion, RJA’s filing recognized that there was no judicial precedent in Massachusetts that controlled, but RJA was able to present the Court with a collection of federal and state cases from across the country that authorize the use of force by law enforcement in order to prevent the destruction of evidence or even to try to prevent an overdose. RJA argued that the same line of authority should be adopted and applied in Massachusetts and that law enforcement officers should be permitted to use reasonable force when appropriate to stop the destruction of evidence.
Federal Judge Timothy Hillman ultimately agreed with RJA, ruling, in line with the cases presented to the Court from around the country, that a police officer may use force to prevent the destruction of evidence. The Court denied the plaintiff’s motion and moved the matter to a trial where a jury will be able to decide whether the force used in this situation was reasonable. While this particular case now will be decided by a jury, the summary judgment decision in Deptula stands for the important proposition that a Massachusetts police officer is entitled to use reasonable force when appropriate to stop an individual’s destruction of evidence.