Mean Thoughts Without Wrongful Actions Don’t Violate the Fourth Amendment

Laney v. City of St. Louis, 2023 WL 116837 (8th Cir. 2023)

I’ve been telling officers for decades to “talk nice, think mean.” At the same time, I’ve also taught that mindset drives behavior. So, don’t mean thoughts lead to mean actions, then? Maybe. But an action that may be perceived as “mean,” yet doesn’t violate a clearly established constitutional right, will not lead to liability for an officer. The case of Derek Laney illustrates this principle.

Derek Laney argued with a police officer during a raucous protest near the St. Louis police academy. Protestors surrounded buses intended for officer transport and started throwing rocks and water bottles. Bicycle officers spread out along both sides of the route and set up a makeshift bicycle barricade to keep protestors back. Officers used their bicycles to push back protestors who tried to advance on them. Laney rapidly approached an officer, who tried to push Laney back with his bicycle. Laney put his arms out, stepping sideways. The officer then advanced toward him, which caused Laney to back up.

The court said Laney’s belief didn’t matter because “evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force.”

Lieutenant Boyher saw Laney from half a block away and perceived he was fighting with the officer. To stop what he thought was a potential assault and to keep Laney from interfering with the officers’ efforts to get the buses out, Lieutenant Boyher ran up to Laney and pepper sprayed him. It worked. Laney retreated and moved away from the barricade. Laney sued, alleging excessive force.

The court noted the situation between Laney and Lieutenant Boyher lasted less than 15 seconds. Laney claimed, and video evidence suggested, that he slowly backed away from the bicycle officer. Notwithstanding, it made “no difference that video footage depicts Laney slowly backing away from the other officer. Only a few feet separated them. And Lieutenant Boyher had an obscured view as he approached from behind.” Lieutenant Boyher easily could have perceived that Laney’s actions “remained dangerous and that someone needed to drive Laney away from the police barricade.”

Laney also alleged Lieutenant Boyher was thinking mean, complaining about what Laney imagined were his “true motivations, intentions, and testimonial fabrications.” Though Laney offered no evidence to back up his mind-reading, the court said Laney’s belief didn’t matter because “evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force.” Because there was no constitutional violation, Lieutenant Boyher was entitled to qualified immunity.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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