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Excessive Force & Due Process

Terry Sides obtained summary judgment for an Alabama police officer in an excessive force lawsuit in federal court.

While on routine patrol in town, the officer encountered a vehicle believed by him to be stolen and in the possession of an individual (later identified as the plaintiff) who was not only considered to be armed and dangerous, but who also the subject of outstanding felony warrants for his arrest. The officer initiated a pursuit (with emergency lights and siren activated) of the vehicle, and in response, the plaintiff sped away from the officer.

At high and dangerous rates of speed, plaintiff sped through streets of the town, including residential areas, and eventually traveled onto an interstate highway. The officer, as well as others, witnessed plaintiff driving erratically and dangerously to other motorists. Witnesses observed plaintiff following too close to other vehicles, passing vehicles in the inside and outside “break-down” lanes, swerving, and cutting off the movement of vehicles on the interstate. Some witnesses estimated plaintiff was driving at a speed over 100 miles per hour.

Plaintiff’s run from the officer continued into an adjoining county, where he eventually exited the interstate and came to a sudden stop, which caused the officer’s patrol car to collide with the rear of the plaintiff’s vehicle.

The officer exited his patrol car, approached the vehicle on the passenger’s side, drew his gun, and began issuing verbal commands to the plaintiff and his front-seat passenger to “put up your hands where I can see them!” The passenger compiled with the officer’s commands to put her hands where he could see them, but plaintiff did not comply.

The officer continued giving verbal commands to plaintiff to “raise your hands where I can see them!,” but he observed plaintiff instead lean back in his seat and began moving around, as well as reaching down and far enough to his right that the officer could not see the plaintiff’s hands. Though plaintiff claimed his hands were on the steering wheel, he conceded that he failed to put his hands in a place where the officer could see them, as the officer had commanded him to do multiple times.

The officer observed that the vehicle began to move backward, leading the officer to believe that plaintiff might be attempting to escape and drive away from the scene. Less than three minutes had elapsed since plaintiff had exited the interstate.

The officer feared plaintiff was attempting to reach for and would at any moment pull out a weapon to use to harm him and perhaps the passenger as well. Based on his training and experience as a police officer, everything which he then knew about plaintiff and had observed during his high-speed pursuit of plaintiff, and the fact that he had been unable to confirm that plaintiff was not armed, the officer, as he began to move back from the passenger’s side of the vehicle, fired one shot at plaintiff, striking him in the leg.

Other police officers arrived on the scene, at which time plaintiff was removed from the vehicle, searched, and found to be in possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. Plaintiff was arrested and charged with various criminal offenses, including receiving stolen property, possession of controlled substances, and attempting to elude the police officer. Plaintiff eventually pled guilty to his crimes.

Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the police officer, stating claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 for alleged excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and deprivation of substantive due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The officer ultimately moved for summary judgment and the Court granted it.

In granting summary judgment for the officer, the Court concluded that under the totality of circumstances, the officer could have reasonably concluded that the amount of force he used was necessary for his safety and the safety of others, so the force used was not excessive in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court further concluded that even if the officer did violate plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, the officer was still entitle to qualified immunity from plaintiff’s claim because at the time of the incident, plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, within the particular contours of this case, were not so clearly established that a reasonable officer in the same circumstances would have known that his conduct was unconstitutional.

Finally, regarding the plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment claim, the Court determined that the officer’s conduct neither rose to the requisite level of “shocking the conscience” nor was it otherwise unconstitutional, especially since there was no evidence that the officer was motivated by anything other than a desire to stop the pursuit and arrest plaintiff.

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