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"Taking It Back"

Court says Officers can't be sued in repossession

A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled today that two Redwood City police officers did not violate the constitutional rights of a city resident when they intervened in a scuffle over repossession of her car.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Officers Steve Dowden and Christine O'Keefe "reasonably acted to restore order during a tense and difficult situation" between Elizabeth Meyers and repossessor Steve Bruno in 2001.

Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote, "The officers cannot be faulted for attempting to settle this late-night confrontation peacefully."

The altercation occurred after Bruno knocked on Meyers's door at 3 a.m. on April 19, 2001, in a bid to repossess a Lexus she had financed through the San Mateo County Employees Credit Union.

Meyers attempted to explain that an arrangement had been made for repayment and asked Bruno to hold off for a few hours until she could call her insurance company and the credit union, but Bruno continued to demand the car keys, according to the court ruling.

As Meyers headed to the car to drive away, the two engaged in a physical scuffle, joined by Meyers's mother, Millie Rovetta.

After Meyers reportedly screamed for her father to get his shotgun, Bruno called 911 and police arrived, the court said.

Meyers and Bruno then each told the officers they wanted to make a citizen's arrest of the other.

But after Bruno said he would withdraw the citizen's arrest if he could take the car, the officers gave Meyers a choice between letting him take the car or being subject to a citizen's arrest. Meyers and her mother then agreed to allow him to take the car.

Meyers got the car back a week or two later after insurance coverage of the repayments was straightened out, according to her attorney, Robert Powell.

In a later civil rights lawsuit, Meyers claimed the officers violated her constitutional due process rights by forcing her to choose between her liberty and her property.

But a three-judge panel of the appeals court said the officers were "summoned to a scene not of their own making."

The panel said the officers were obligated to go ahead with finalizing the citizen's arrests of both Meyers and Bruno unless those requests were withdrawn, especially because the officers could see that scratches on Bruno's chest and arms were bleeding.

Bybee, the author of the court's opinion, wrote that Meyers' constitutional rights were not violated because the choice she was offered was "not a situation of the officers' creation but a consequence of a nasty confrontation."

The appeals court overturned a ruling in which U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco said Meyers could take her claims against the officers to trial.

Powell said Meyers is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This decision is further erosion of Fourth-Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable search and seizure," Powell said.

The attorney also said Meyers' lawsuit still has state law claims of battery, emotional distress and trespass pending against Bruno and Tri City Recovery, the repossession company.

Joseph Howard, a lawyer for the two officers, praised the ruling.

"The officers just tried to keep the peace in a difficult situation at 3 a.m. on a public street," Howard said.

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