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UC Davis student can sue over pepper spray, court rules

July 11, 2012 | 11:44 am

A federal appeals court decided Wednesday that police from UC Davis and the city of Davis may be held liable for shooting pepper spray that injured a student in the eye, causing him to lose an athletic scholarship and drop out of college.

Timothy C. Nelson, who underwent several surgeries after being hit in the eye with a pepperball, was among about 1,000 people attending a party in April 2004 to celebrate UC Davis’ annual Picnic Day. The police tried to break up the party because the street was congested, partygoers had parked illegally and some minors were drinking alcohol, the court said.

Students testified in depositions that they were awaiting instructions from police when the pepper spray was fired.

“The students were disturbed by the presence of the police in full riot gear, and some of Nelson’s female companions began to cry,” the court said. “Although there were scattered bottles being thrown throughout the complex … officers testified that no one from Nelson’s group threw bottles at the police."

Police said they warned the partygoers to disperse before firing the pepper spray but the students testified they did not hear the warnings.

“At various times they called out to the police, asking the officers to inform them what they wanted the students to do, and repeatedly raised their hands to show their willingness to comply,” the court said.

Wednesday’s decision upheld a district court judge’s ruling that the police in the case should not receive legal immunity.

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