||ELEVENTH CIRCUIT GRANTS IMMUNITY TO OFFICER WHO HIT FLEEING SUSPECT WITH PATROL VEHICLE

ELEVENTH CIRCUIT GRANTS IMMUNITY TO OFFICER WHO HIT FLEEING SUSPECT WITH PATROL VEHICLE

On October 22, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Haynes v. Richmond County Sheriff’s Office et al.[i], in which the court examined whether a deputy used excessive force when he struck Haynes, who was fleeing on foot, with his patrol vehicle. The relevant facts of Haynes, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

A. Undisputed Facts

On May 12, 2013, Roderick Haynes attended a cookout at an apartment complex in Augusta, Georgia. Deputy Sheriff Michael Garner heard an altercation at the cookout and pulled his patrol car around to the back of the building to investigate. As he was getting out of his vehicle, he heard a number of bystanders yelling that Haynes had a gun. Haynes ran to and entered another car, and Deputy Garner yelled and motioned for Haynes to stop, which he did not. Haynes accelerated the vehicle, drove past Deputy Garner, and came within a few feet of where Deputy Garner was standing. Deputy Garner then got in his patrol car and pursued Haynes. At one point, Haynes abandoned his car. As he ran on foot through a church parking lot, Deputy Garner’s patrol car collided with Haynes. Deputy Garner then placed Haynes under arrest, and Haynes was transported to the hospital.

Haynes was charged with aggravated assault, obstruction of an officer, possession of marijuana, fleeing and attempt to elude, and DUI. A firearm was never recovered. The medical report states that Haynes was hit by a vehicle traveling at approximately 20 miles per hour. The medical report also states that Haynes suffered a concussion, laceration of his lip, and abrasion of the upper arm. In 2015, Haynes sought treatment at the Georgia Department of Corrections for severe nerve pain in his neck, shoulder, back, and right leg, which he attributes to the collision.

B. Haynes’s Version

Haynes asserts that at the cookout a group of people, one of whom had a gun, assaulted him. In order to avoid being shot, Haynes fled in his brother’s car. Haynes abandoned the car when he “hit [] a curve,” but continued running to seek help. Haynes asserts that Deputy Garner intentionally hit him with the patrol car traveling at a speed in excess of 60 miles per hour knocking him six feet into the air and causing extensive damage to the windshield of the patrol car. Haynes alleges that as a result of the collision he suffered injuries to his neck, shoulder, back, and leg.

C. Deputy Garner’s Version

According to Deputy Garner, he was speaking with a resident of the apartment complex when he heard a loud disturbance coming from behind a nearby building. He drove to the back of the building where he found a number of people yelling. As he stepped out of the patrol car, he heard people say that Haynes was in possession of a firearm. Haynes entered a car pointed in Deputy Garner’s direction as Deputy Garner was shouting and motioning for him to stop. Haynes accelerated the vehicle and came within a few feet of where Deputy Garner was standing as he drove off. Because Haynes fled the scene in such a way and a number of people had indicated that Haynes had a firearm, Deputy Garner returned to his patrol car and pursued Haynes to question him about the altercation at the cookout and to ensure that he did not pose a danger to others.

As Haynes was attempting to exit the apartment complex, he was blocked by a stopped vehicle and got out of the car. Haynes then started to run across the church parking lot toward a wooded area. Deputy Garner drove around the stopped vehicle and attempted to cut Haynes off by pulling in front of him. Haynes continued to run toward Deputy Garner’s vehicle and jumped across the hood of the patrol car, which forced Deputy Garner to adjust his course to avoid running over him. At that point, Haynes struck the windshield and the patrol car ended up in a small ditch behind the church.[ii]

Haynes subsequently filed suit in federal district court and alleged that the deputy used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he struck him with his patrol vehicle as he fled on foot.  The district court held that the deputy did not violate Hayne’s rights and, if he did, the law was not clearly established; therefore, the district court granted qualified immunity to the deputy. Haynes appealed the grant of qualified immunity to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court of appeals began by discussing the defense of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity is intended to protect government officials from liability when they are performing “discretionary” functions, as long as they do not violate “clearly established law.”  A discretionary function is one that involves a choice between options, for example, to pursue, to not pursue, to use force, to block a person with a patrol vehicle, to arrest, or to not arrest.  The court of appeals stated

Once a public official proves that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority, “the burden shifts to the plaintiff to satisfy the following two-pronged inquiry: (1) whether the facts that a plaintiff has shown make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct.” Id. Our inquiry “can begin with either prong; neither is antecedent to the other.” Morris v. Town of Lexington, 748 F.3d 1316, 1322 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009)).[iii] [emphasis added]

The court also stated that the law is considered “clearly established” when case law from the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or the highest court of the state where the incident occurred (in this case, Georgia) puts the government official on notice that his conduct in the incident at issue was unlawful.  The court stated

A constitutional right is clearly established if “it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001). In other words, [i]f the law did not put the officer on notice that his conduct would be clearly unlawful, summary judgment based on qualified immunity is appropriate.[iv] [emphasis added]

With the standard for qualified immunity identified, the court of appeals then discussed the constitutional principles that apply to Haynes’s case.  The court stated

The Fourth Amendment provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable . . . seizures, shall not be violated.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A Fourth Amendment seizure occurs when “there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied.Cty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 844 (1998). The Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures also “encompasses the plain right to be free from the use of excessive force in the course of an arrest.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1197 (11th Cir. 2002)… [C]laims that law enforcement officers used excessive force in the course of making an arrest are governed by the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” standard. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 388 (1989). Objective reasonableness must be judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Id. at 396. And “[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance 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.Graham, 490 U.S. at 396-97. [v] [emphasis added]

Here, Haynes argued that the deputy intentionally struck him with the patrol vehicle at approximately 60 miles per hour and that he was unarmed and non-dangerous. He argued that the Supreme Court case of Tennessee v. Garner[vi] clearly established that it was excessive force under the Fourth Amendment to use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing, unarmed, non-dangerous felon.

The deputy argued that he did not intentionally hit Haynes with his vehicle, but rather was just trying to block his path of escape.  The court noted that the Fourth Amendment is concerned with “objective reasonableness” rather than the subjective intent of the deputy.  Further, the court also noted that, in Garner, the Supreme Court also held that an officer’s use of deadly force “would be reasonable if the officer had probable cause to believe that the [escaping] suspect posed a threat of serious physical harm.[vii]  [emphasis added]

The court then examined the objective facts of Haynes’s case and stated

[A]lthough Haynes was unarmed, we must assess reasonableness based on the facts known to the officer at the time. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. It would not have been clear to a reasonable officer in Deputy Garner’s position that Haynes was unarmed and non-dangerous. Deputy Garner arrived at the cookout after hearing an altercation from next door, and as he was exiting his car, he heard people shouting that Haynes had a firearm. Haynes jumped in a car, ignoring Deputy Garner’s calls to stop, and accelerated the car in Deputy Garner’s direction coming within a few feet of hitting him. A reasonable officer in Deputy Garner’s position could have concluded, particularly in the context of the “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” situation, Graham, 490 U.S. at 397, that Haynes was armed and posed a threat of immediate harm. Therefore, “in the specific set of circumstances at issue,Youmans, 626 F.3d at 563, it would not have been clear to a reasonable officer in Deputy Garner’s position that Garner prohibited using the patrol car to stop Haynes’s flight.[viii] [emphasis added]

Therefore, the court of appeals held that Garner does not clearly establish that the deputy committed excessive force in specific facts of Haynes case, and as such, the deputy is entitled to qualified immunity.

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Citations

[i] No. 17-14167 (11th Cir. Decided October 22, 2018 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 2-4

[iii] Id. at 6-7

[iv] Id. at 8-9

[v] Id. at 7

[vi] 471 U.S. 1 (1985)

[vii] Id. at 9

[viii] Id. at 10

By |2019-05-14T20:59:21+00:00May 14th, 2019|Legal updates|

About the Author:

Brian Batterton is an attorney in the State of Georgia and currently a Lieutenant with the Cobb County Police Department. He has been in law enforcement since 1994 and obtained his Juris Doctorate in 1999 from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He has served as an officer in Uniform Patrol, a detective in Criminal Investigations, a Corporal in the Training Unit and as a Sergeant in Uniform Patrol. Brian is currently assigned as the Legal Officer to the Chief of Police. In addition to his work at the police department, he also lectures for the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute (LLRMI) on both criminal law and procedure topics, as well as, police civil liability.