• “Swatting” and Section 1983: Some Preliminary Thoughts

    by  • February 26, 2018 • Faculty Commentary • 0 Comments

    by Professor Sheldon Nahmod

    Suppose, either as some sort of misguided prank or motivated by malice, an individual calls the police anonymously and informs them falsely that a man has killed his father and is holding other persons hostage at a particular address. Members of a police SWAT team arrive at the location in the early evening, surround the location and call on the man inside to come out. They also call out directions to the man–who apparently has no idea of what’s going on–to keep his hands up. However, for whatever reason the man appears to lower his hands and at that point one of the officers shoots and kills him.

    This is obviously a real tragedy. But I would like to make some preliminary observations about the section 1983 liability issues potentially arising out of these circumstances.

    1. The constitutionality of the reliance on the anonymous tip.

    When the SWAT team arrived at the decedent’s location, surrounded it, called on him to come out and to keep his hands up, they seized him for Fourth Amendment purposes. Did they have probable cause to do so in the first place? Were there exigent circumstances? If not, they violated the Fourth Amendment.

    2. The constitutionality of the particular use of force here.

    Whether they had probable cause to seize him in the first place, did they use excessive force when one of the officers shot and killed him (a second seizure)? If so, they violated the Fourth Amendment.

    3. The relation between the two events.

    This potentially raises a proximate cause issue. If the officers violated the Fourth Amendment with the initial seizure, then they would be liable in damages for that (assuming no qualified immunity protection). And if this violation was the result of the police department’s failure to train, then the city could also be liable in damages under section 1983 regardless of qualified immunity.

    If the officers separately violated the Fourth Amendment when they shot and killed him, then they would be liable in damages for that as well (again, assuming no qualified immunity protection). And if this violation was the result of the police department’s failure to train, then here too the city could also be liable in damages under section 1983.

    But if they only violated the Fourth Amendment with the initial seizure and did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they shot and killed him, then the question arises whether the initial Fourth Amendment violation (and the police department’s failure to train) was the proximate cause of the shooting and killing of decedent for which the officers (and possibly the city) would be liable.

    This is comparable to the proximate cause issue implicated in the Supreme Court’s decision last Term in  County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 137 S. Ct. 1539 (2017), which I blogged about here: County of Los Angeles v. Mendez: Supreme Court Rejects “Provocation Rule,” Remands On Proximate Cause

    See generally, on proximate cause and section 1983, chapter 3 in NAHMODCIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2017)(West/Westlaw).

    4. The caller is not a state actor, although he knowingly provided a false tip to police officers who deal with emergency SWAT situations.

    Merely notifying law enforcement officers who thereafter act independently of the caller (and not jointly with him) does not constitute state action. Accordingly, the caller did not violate the Fourth Amendment even if the SWAT team did. He would not be liable for damages under section 1983.

    But perhaps tort liability could play a role here. If the caller intended that the police shoot the decedent, or if he knew with substantial certainty that decedent would be shot by them, the caller could be liable for battery. Alternatively, the caller could liable for his negligence in calling the police about an innocent person. After all, the reasonably foreseeable result of his call under these circumstances–falsely informing the police about killing the person’s father and holding hostages–is that the innocent person would be shot.

    Of course, to make this remedy available as a practical matter, the caller must not be judgment proof.

    I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw.


    This post appeared originally on the NahmodLaw blog.

    About

    The purpose of the C-K Faculty Blog is to provide a forum that brings together all the rich intellectual contributions of the Chicago-Kent faculty and to encourage respectful and scholarly dialogue within the extended Chicago-Kent community, including faculty, students, alumni and colleagues at other law schools and universities. For questions or more information, contact the C-K Faculty Blog Editor by e-mail at facultyscholarship@kentlaw.iit.edu.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *