On January 5th, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Quiles v. City of Tampa Police Dept. et al. [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to the reasonableness requirement for officers using deadly force. The relevant facts of Quiles, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On the day of the incident, Officer Cain stopped Quiles for driving recklessly. When asked for his identification, Quiles gave Officer Cain a driver’s license with the name “Alex Perez.” After discovering that Perez’s driver’s license was suspended and that Perez had earlier citations for traffic violations, Officer Cain decided to arrest Quiles, whom Officer Cain believed to be Perez. Before Officer Cain initiated the arrest, Officer Savitt responded to the scene to serve as back up.
When Officers Cain and Savitt asked Quiles to step out of the car, Quiles started to run. But Officers Cain and Savitt grabbed Quiles and pulled him back toward the car. Quiles then struggled physically with Officer Cain. The two men fell to the ground (with Quiles on top of Officer Cain) and continued to struggle for a few seconds. Officer Cain then got up into a kneeling position and, while holding onto Quiles’s shirt, delivered a knee strike to Quiles’s head. Quiles freed himself from Officer Cain’s grasp by pulling backwards out of Quiles’s shirt, and he started to run away. Officer Savitt then fired two shots at Quiles; Quiles was hit and died as a result.
Although the parties disagree about what was said exactly during the altercation, the parties agree that, when Officer Cain and Quiles were fighting on the ground, one of the officers began saying something about a gun. Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the evidence shows that one of the officers began saying “watch your gun, watch your gun,” while it appeared as though that officer (Officer Savitt) was trying to protect the other officer’s (Officer Cain’s) gun. And, according to one witness, neither officer warned Quiles that they would shoot if he did not stop. [ii]
Quiles estate sued the police department and the officers for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied summary judgment for the officers based on qualified immunity. While the court held it was reasonable for the officer to believe that Quiles had taken Officer Cain’s gun and was armed and dangerous, the court denied qualified immunity because Officer Savitt did not warn Quiles before the shooting. The officer’s appealed the denial of summary judgment and qualified immunity to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the outset, the Eleventh Circuit stated:
Qualified immunity offers complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002). To avoid summary judgment based on qualified immunity, Plaintiff must show both that Officer Savitt violated a federal right and that the right was already clearly established when Officer Savitt acted. See id. “When properly applied, [qualified immunity] protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2085 (2011).[iii]
The court then stated that a right is “clearly established” for the sake of qualified immunity when the boundaries of the right “are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he was doing violates that right.” [iv]
With this in mind, the court set out to determine (1) whether the officer violated Quiles’ Fourth Amendment rights when he shot him, and (2) if the right was violated, whether it was clearly established such that any reasonable officer in the same situation would have known he was violating the right.
The court then examined the legal standard for deadly force. The court stated:
Although suspects have a right to be free from force that is excessive, they are not protected against a use of force that is necessary in the situation at hand.” Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 821 (11th Cir. 2010) (quotations omitted). And “the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it.” Graham v. Connor, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 1871-72 (1989).
No precise test or “rigid preconditions” exist for determining when an officer’s use of deadly force is excessive. See Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1777 (2007). Instead, in determining whether the Fourth Amendment was violated, “we must still slosh our way through the factbound morass of ‘reasonableness.'” Id. at 1778.
Thus, in deciding the merits of a claim of excessive force, we must determine whether, given all the facts and circumstances of a particular case, the force used was “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. Graham, 109 S.Ct. at 1871-82. “In determining the reasonableness of the force applied, we look at the fact pattern from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene with knowledge of the attendant circumstances and facts, and balance the risk of bodily harm to the suspect against the gravity of the threat the officer sought to eliminate.” McCullough v. Antolini, 559 F.3d 1201, 1206 (11th Cir. 2009). We may also consider, as a factor, “not only the number of lives at risk, but also their relative culpability.” Scott, 127 S.Ct. at 1778.
“The ‘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, 109 S.Ct. at 1872. And we must allow “for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Id. “We are loath to second-guess the decisions made by police officers in the field.” Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1331 (11th Cir. 2003). [v] [emphasis added]
The court then examined facts relevant to whether the officer’s use of deadly force was reasonable in this case. The court noted that Quiles “physically, actively, and aggressively” resisted arrest in that he attempted to run away twice and he fought with Officer Cain. The court also noted that one of the officers stated words to the effect of “watch your gun.” As such, the court noted that when Quiles pulled away from Officer Cain the second time and ran away, it was reasonable for Officer Savitt to believe, although mistakenly, that Quiles “had stolen and was still in possession of Officer Cain’s gun.” [vi] Thus, the court stated:
An objective officer in Officer Savitt’s situation could have believed reasonably that Quiles — armed with a gun — posed a threat of serious physical injury to the officers and to others. Quiles had shown himself willing to use physical force against an officer to avoid arrest. And nothing indicated that Quiles — who had started to run away with what the officers believed reasonably to be a police-issue firearm taken by force from an officer — had stopped resisting the officers’ efforts to seize him or would otherwise refrain from using force to avoid arrest again. Faced with a “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” situation, Officer Savitt made a split-second decision to shoot Quiles to avoid the risk of serious injury to either of the officers or to bystanders. Given the circumstances, we cannot say that Officer Savitt’s decision was unreasonable in the Fourth Amendment sense. Furthermore, we feel certain that it was not clearly established — as a matter of law — at the time of the shooting that Officer Savitt acted unreasonably in the Fourth Amendment sense. [vii]
The court also discussed the reasonableness of shooting Quiles as he was running away. To this, the court stated:
Although Quiles was running away from the officers when he was shot and had not threatened definitely the officers with a gun, “the law does not require officers in a tense and dangerous situation to wait until the moment a suspect uses a deadly weapon to act to stop the suspect.” See Long v. Slaton, 508 F.3d 576, 581 (11th Cir. 2007); see also Montoute v. Carr, 114 F.3d 181, 185 (11th Cir. 1997) (even though suspect was running away and never pointed shotgun at anyone, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because the officer could have believed reasonably that the suspect “might wheel around and fire his shotgun again, or might take cover . . . and shoot at the officers or others.”). Officers need not “wait and hope for the best.” Jean-Baptiste, 627 F.3d at 821 (quotation omitted). [viii] [emphasis added]
The court also addressed the fact that Officer Savitt mistakenly believed that Quiles was armed. The court stated that, since Officer Savitt’s mistaken belief was reasonable, it is does not matter that he was mistaken about Quiles being armed. Specifically, the court stated:
That Officer Savitt was mistaken — reasonably mistaken — about Quiles having stolen Officer Cain’s gun does not matter either on the merits or for purposes of immunity. See Penley v. Weippert, 605 F.3d 843, 851, 854 (11th Cir. 2010) (concluding that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred when officer believed reasonably that the suspect — who was armed with a realistic-looking toy gun — posed a threat of serious physical harm to the officers and to nearby students); Garczynksi v. Bradshaw, 573 F.3d 1158, 1167 (11th Cir. 2009) (concluding officer was entitled to qualified immunity when decision to shoot suspect was based in part on a mistaken, but reasonable, belief that the suspect was about to drive away). [ix]
Lastly, the court discussed if the failure of Officer Savitt to give a warning prior to using deadly force, renders the force unreasonable. The court noted that the applicable rule from the Supreme Court is that a warning should be given, if feasible. However, the court explained:
[T]he Supreme Court has stressed that “Garner did not establish a magical on/off switch that triggers rigid preconditions whenever an officer’s actions constitute ‘deadly force.'” See Scott, 127 S.Ct. at 1777. Instead, reasonableness is determined based on all the facts and circumstances of each individual case. Graham, 109 S.Ct. at 1872.
…But, in the light of the Supreme Court’s later clarification in Scott of the Garner legal standard, we now know and had published precedents by 2011 that an officer’s failure to issue a seemingly feasible warning — at least, to a person appearing to be armed — does not, in and of itself, render automatically unreasonable the use of deadly force. See Penley, 605 F.3d at 854 n.6 (quotations and alterations omitted) (rejecting the argument that Garner mandates the issuance of a warning, and explaining that this Court has “declined to fashion an inflexible rule that, in order to avoid civil liability, an officer must always warn his suspect before firing — particularly where such a warning might easily have cost the officer his life.”); Carr v. Tatangelo, 338 F.3d 1259, 1269 n. 19 (11th Cir. 2003) (same, adopting the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning in McLenagan v. Karnes, 27 F.3d 1002 (4th Cir. 1994)). [x] [emphasis added]
In light of the above, the court held that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he failed to warn Quiles before using deadly force.
As such, the court held:
An objectively reasonable officer possessing the same knowledge as Officer Savitt could have believed that the use of deadly force against Quiles was justified, to prevent serious injury to the officers and to bystanders. The Constitution was not violated. Moreover, given the circumstances and the train of precedents, we are even more confident that Officer Savitt, in 2011, violated no clearly-established constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known; as a matter of law, he personally is entitled to immunity. [xi]
Therefore, the district court’s denial of qualified immunity 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. 14-12875 (11th Cir. Unpublished Decided November 14, 2014)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 5
[v] Id. at 6-7
[vi] Id. at 7
[vii] Id. at 8
[viii] Id. at 8-9
[ix] Id. at 9
[x] Id. at 9-10
[xi] Id. at 11