Typically, force that is intentionally applied is analyzed under the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard. However, recently, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case that is an exception to this rule.
In Clark v. Edmunds, a sheriff and two deputies went to Sheryl Clark’s residence, which was also the motel in which she worked, in order to take Ms. Clark’s adult daughter into protective custody for an emergency mental health evaluation.i When Sheriff Edmunds was physically escorting the daughter, who was being argumentative, from the residence, Ms. Clark turned toward the Sheriff. Ms. Clark said she just wanted to see what was happening. The Sheriff believed that Ms. Clark was about to interfere so he used his free arm to push Ms. Clark out of his path. As a result, Ms. Clark fell and hit a table and a chair. The Sheriff took Ms. Clark’s daughter outside, handcuffed her, and then returned inside and explained what was happening to Ms. Clark. After the examination, hospital staff released Ms. Clark’s daughter and she returned to the motel.
Ms. Clark then sued Summit County and the Sheriff for excessive force in violation the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to Summit County and the Sheriff and Ms. Clark appealed.
First, in regard to the suit against the county, Ms. Clark made no showing that a policy, custom or practice or any inadequate training led to the alleged constitutional violation. Because of this, summary judgment for the county was proper.
Next, the court turned to the Sheriff in his individual capacity. In order to defeat qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show (1) that a constitutional violation occurred, and (2) that the right alleged violated was clearly established at the time of the violation.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals then set out to determine if the Sheriff, with the push to clear his path, violated Ms. Clark’s constitutional rights. The first issue to overcome here was whether this claim is governed by the Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness or the Fourteenth Amendments “conscious shocking” standard. The court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment standard was correct here because a seizure under the Fourth Amendment “required an intentional acquisition of physical control.”ii In this case, the Sheriff only intended to clear Ms. Clark from his path, not acquire physical control over her. Thus, they held that no Fourth Amendment seizure occurred and the Fourteenth Amendment standard must be applied.
Under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause is violated by government actors only when their conduct can be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience shocking. The court stated:
To satisfy this standard plaintiff must do more than show that the government actor intentionally or recklessly caused injury to the plaintiff by abusing or misusing government power. Rather the plaintiff must show a high level of outrageousness.iii
Additionally, citing the United States Supreme Court in County of Sacramento v. Lewis, the court noted that, when officers are responding to unforeseen circumstances that demand instantaneous judgment, even recklessness fails to reach the standard that would violate the Fourteenth Amendment.iv
The Tenth Circuit then had to apply the rules above to the facts of this case. First, they found that the Sheriff had a legitimate interest in maintaining custody of Ms. Clark’s daughter. Then, when Ms. Clark turned towards him as he was escorting the daughter out of the residence, he made a split-second decision to push Ms. Clark away to clear his path. The court found that this action served his legitimate interest in maintaining custody of the daughter. There was also no evidence of any improper or malicious motive on the part of the Sheriff. Thus, the Tenth Circuit held that the Sheriff’s response to the perceived threat presented by Ms. Clark did not rise to the level of egregiousness required to violate the Fourteenth Amendment; therefore, the sheriff is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment.