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Appeals court upholds officer’s firing for excessive force

Scott Lauck//June 4, 2020

Appeals court upholds officer’s firing for excessive force

Scott Lauck//June 4, 2020

The Court of Appeals Western District on May 26 said the court couldn’t second-guess a Columbia city manager’s decision to fire a police officer who severely injured a man in detention.

Barring a rehearing or transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court, the ruling likely marks the end of Officer Rob Sanders’ nine-year bid to regain his job.

“The city is very pleased with the result,” said Ian Cooper of Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan Jackstadt, who represented the city. “We believe that the opinion was very thorough and well-reasoned.”

Scott Jansen of Armstrong Teasdale, who argued for Sanders, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Sanders was fired following his encounter with Kenneth Baker, who had been pepper-sprayed during his arrest for failing to appear in court for unpaid child support. While in custody inside a holding cell at the downtown Columbia police station, Baker banged on a cell door while asking for water to clear his eyes.

Sanders entered the cell and shoved Baker with two hands. Baker hit the back of his head against the concrete wall so forcefully that the sound “was captured by a microphone located in the booking room, which was located down and around two hallways,” the appeals court noted in its opinion.

Baker suffered a lacerated head and injured his spine. He reached a $250,000 settlement with the city in late 2011, a few months after his injury.

The city’s then-police chief fired Sanders, an 18-year police veteran, shortly after the incident for using excessive force. The city’s personnel advisory board upheld Sanders’ termination, as did the city manager.

Sanders challenged the city manager’s determination in circuit court, and a Cole County judge initially reversed Sanders’ firing. But the Western District in 2016 said the judge had reviewed it under the wrong standard. Because the personnel advisory board’s decision didn’t bind the city manager, who made the ultimate decision to fire Sanders, the circuit court should have treated it as a “noncontested” administrative case, the appeals court said at the time.

At the second trial held in Boone County Circuit Court, a different judge upheld Sanders’ firing after hearing three days’ worth of evidence in the case. On appeal once again, the former officer argued that the judge had failed to conduct the de novo review required under the Missouri Administrative Procedure Act. The Western District, however, said the judge approached the case correctly.

Judge Cynthia L. Martin, writing for the appeals court, said the job of a trial judge reviewing a noncontested administrative decision was to make independent findings of fact, then to determine if those facts provided substantial evidence to support the underlying decision. But the trial judge could not substitute his discretion for that of the city manager.

“All that remained was a strictly legal question about whether these facts could, as a matter of law, have been relied on by the City Manager to make the discretionary determination that Sanders violated City policy and ordinances and should be terminated as a result,” Martin wrote. Judges Lisa White Hardwick and Thomas N. Chapman concurred.

The case also offered the Western District the rare opportunity to address a constitutional question. Sanders also had alleged that the city’s actions violated his due process rights, as his firing was based on an allegedly vague Columbia city ordinance barring “abusive or improper treatment” of detainees. Most constitutional questions must go to the Missouri Supreme Court, but challenges to the constitutionality of ordinances can be addressed by the lower appellate courts.

Martin wrote that similar language has survived void-for-vagueness arguments in other cases. Even if it didn’t, Sanders’ firing was based independently on the city’s determination that he violated the department’s use-of-force policy.

The case is Sanders v. City of Columbia, WD82527.

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