On September 8, 2014, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals of decided the Saunders v. Duke et al. [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to the Fourth Amendment regarding excessive force. The relevant facts of Saunders, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On January 24, 2008, Mr. Saunders met with a couple of individuals at a gas station in Orlando, Florida, to sell them oxycodone pills. Those individuals, however, turned out to be an undercover officer and a confidential informant. Mr. Saunders entered the front passenger seat of the undercover agent’s car and conducted the narcotics transaction. After the sale was completed, Agents Duke, Matthews, and Kilian surrounded the vehicle with their weapons drawn. Agent Matthews ordered Mr. Saunders to place his hands on the car’s windshield and not move. Mr. Saunders immediately complied with the command without resisting or attempting to flee. Agent Kilian then jerked Mr. Saunders out of the vehicle and pushed him down on the hot pavement in order to handcuff him.
After he was handcuffed, Mr. Saunders was held down against the hot pavement on his stomach for a “long period of time,” though he was “not resisting, posing [a] threat, or attempting to flee.” He told the agents that he was “getting burnt.” During this time Mr. Saunders “was holding his face up off the hot pavement to keep from being burn[ed].” Though he was not resisting or attempting to flee, one of the agents “slammed” Mr. Saunders’ face onto the pavement “with extreme force.” Mr. Saunders did not see which one of the agents struck him, but all three agents were present at the time. When Mr. Saunders was brought to his feet, “blood was pouring out of his mouth [and] face from the impact against the pavement.” Mr. Saunders suffered lacerations, injuries to his teeth and jaw, damage to his left eardrum, and emotional distress due to his head striking the pavement. [ii]
Saunders filed suit against all the officers on scene during his arrest because he was unsure of who used the force against him. He argued that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures, which was the alleged excessive force. The district court granted the officers’ motions for qualified immunity and held that when Saunders lifted his head off the pavement, a reasonable officer could have believed that he was resisting arrest. Saunders appealed the grant of qualified immunity to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the outset, it is important to note that, at this stage of case (the motion for summary judgment or qualified immunity), the court must view the facts from a perspective most favorable to the plaintiff. Thus, the facts reported may be different from what actually occurred.
The court of appeals first noted that qualified immunity:
[G]ives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.'” Lane v. Franks, 134 S. Ct. 2369, 2381 (2014) (citation omitted). Under this doctrine, “courts may not award damages against a government official in his personal capacity unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.” Id. (citation and some internal quotation marks omitted). [iii]
Thus, the court will first determine if the officers, based on the version of facts most favorable to the plaintiff, violated the constitution. Then, if so, the court will determine if the law was “clearly established” such that a reasonable officer in the same situation would have known his conduct was unlawful. A right is clearly established, for the sake of this case, if there is similar precedent from the United States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or the Supreme Court of Florida.
The court then examined the relevant legal standards regarding excessive force. The court stated:
The Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures includes the right to be free from the use of excessive force in the course of an arrest. See id. at 1197. In order to determine whether the amount of force used was proper, a court must ask “whether the officer’s conduct is objectively reasonable in light of the facts confronting the officer.” Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1347 (11th Cir. 2002). In this respect, “[t]he ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989).
“Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is ‘reasonable’ under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). This objective analysis “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Id. Other considerations are “the need for the application of force, the relationship between the need and the amount of force used, [and] the extent of the injury inflicted.” Hadley, 526 F.3d at 1329 (citation, internal quotation marks, and numbering omitted).[iv] [emphasis added]
The Court of Appeals then looked at three cases from the Eleventh Circuit that are instructive in Saunders’ case. First, the court examined Priester v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida. [v] In Priester, an officer allowed his canine to attack a man who had complied with commands to lie down and did not constitute a threat. The court held the officer violated the Fourth Amendment, as the suspect did not pose a threat of harm to the officers or others, nor was he fleeing or actively resisting arrest. As such, the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity.
Second, the court examined Slicker v. Jackson [vi]. In Slicker, officers arrested the plaintiff for disorderly conduct and handcuffed him. They then slammed his head against the pavement, which knocked him unconscious. When he woke up, the officers allegedly kicked him in the leg, back, and head. The Eleventh Circuit held that the officers used excessive force since the plaintiff was handcuffed and did not resist, attempt to flee or struggle with the officers at the time the force was used. As such, the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.
Lastly, the court examined Lee v. Ferraro [vii]. In this case, an officer arrested a driver for improperly honking her horn. After the driver was handcuffed, the officer allegedly slammed her head against the trunk of the car. The court held the officer used excessive force because, when the force was used, the driver did not pose a threat to the officer or others. Thus, the court held the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity.
Applying the rationale in the above cases to the facts of Saunders’ case, the court stated:
Based on these cases, Mr. Saunders’ allegations are more than sufficient to state a Fourth Amendment claim. While he was on the ground and handcuffed, Mr. Saunders held his head up in order to avoid having his face burned by the hot pavement. Though he was not resisting or posing a threat to anyone, one of the agents allegedly “slammed” his head into the pavement with “extreme force.” If these allegations are true, and we must assume that they are at this stage of the case, that force was unnecessary, disproportionate, and constitutionally excessive. See, e.g., Slicker, 215 F.3d at 1233; Lee, 284 F.3d at 1198. [viii]
The Eleventh Circuit also held that, in light of previous case law, the law was “clearly established” such that a reasonable officer would have known his conduct, if as alleged by Saunders in this case, was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.
As such, the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity and the district court’s decision was reversed.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 12-11401 (11th Cir. Decided September 8, 2014)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 5
[iv] Id. at 6-7
[v] 208 F.3d 919 (11th Cir. 2000)
[vi] 215 F.3d 1225 (11th Cir. 2000)
[vii] 284 F.3d 1188 (11th 2002)
[viii] Saunders at 9