On October 15, 2020, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Goffin v. Ashcraft[i], in which the court examined whether an officer who shot a fleeing suspect in the back was entitled to qualified immunity. The relevant facts of Goffin, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In September 2012, Goffin’s uncle, Tommy Reddick, reported to Officer Ashcraft and Officer Aaron Hines that his home had been burgled—and he suspected Goffin was responsible for stealing two handguns, a box of bullets, and a bottle of painkillers. Reddick told the officers that earlier that day Goffin came to his house and asked for a gun, explaining that he lost his own pistol fleeing from the police. Reddick refused and left the house. When he returned, he saw Goffin was still nearby, arguing with a man in a black pickup truck. Once inside his house, he discovered that someone had snuck in through a back window, broken down a bedroom door, and stolen guns, ammunition, and pills. Reddick warned Officer Ashcraft, “This dude is out of control!” and, “Y’all better be ready to fight when you find him.”
When the officers started searching for Goffin, Officer Ashcraft stopped a black truck that looked like the one Reddick had described. The driver, Dewayne Moore, told her that earlier Goffin had asked him for a ride. Moore initially told Goffin no, but Goffin threatened him, saying “take me to the goddamn car wash” and then displayed two guns that matched the descriptions of Reddick’s stolen pistols. Frightened, Moore gave Goffin a ride. He too warned Officer Ashcraft about Goffin, telling her that Goffin was drunk and that Moore was scared he would rob him. After the shooting, he recounted to police that Goffin looked like he “was going to do something stupid,” like he didn’t “give a damn . . . like, I’m going to take you out or whatever.”
After Officer Ashcraft interviewed Moore, Officer Hines called her and told her that Goffin was at a nearby body shop. The officers arrived separately but then walked together toward a crowd of people in the parking lot. Officer Ashcraft asked where Goffin was and the owner of the body shop directed them toward the garage. In front of the garage, the officers found Goffin sitting in a car talking on a Bluetooth headset. Both officers approached the vehicle with guns drawn, but before they got there Officer Hines holstered his pistol and drew a taser.
The officers demanded that Goffin exit with his hands raised, which he did. They then escorted him to the back of the car and Officer Ashcraft claims she saw something “bumping in [Goffin’s] right front pocket.” Goffin denies anything was in that pocket. At the back of the vehicle, Goffin says that Officer Hines patted him down and “searched every part of [his] body,” including feeling for items in his pockets and around his waist. Goffin admits Officer Hines “didn’t go into [his] pockets” and did not remove anything from his body.
Officer Hines started to place Goffin in handcuffs, but before he could finish, Goffin pushed off the car and fled toward a group of seven or eight bystanders. With his back to the officers, he raised his right shoulder, which Officer Ashcraft interpreted as a reach for something in his pocket or his waistband. She then shot him once in the back.
The shooting occurred in a “split second.” Goffin says he took no more than two steps and Officer Ashcraft agrees he made it only “a very short distance” before she fired. After he was shot, officers discovered that the patdown had missed a loaded 9mm pistol magazine and several loose bullets. The stolen guns were discovered within reach of where Goffin had been sitting in the car, but Goffin did not have a weapon on him.[ii]
Goffin survived and filed suit in federal court against the officer for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment and against the city for failure to train and supervise the officer. The officer and city filed motions for summary judgment and the district court granted the motions holding that the shooting was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Goffin appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The ultimate issue before the court of appeals was whether the officer was entitled to qualified immunity from suit for shooting Goffin.
The court then examined the legal principles that control this issue. First, the court examined the law related to the use of deadly force to apprehend fleeing suspects. The court stated
We analyze cases involving the use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect under the Fourth Amendment. Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 85 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1985). An officer’s actions are justified when they are “objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting [the officer], without regard to [the officer’s] underlying intent or motivation.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 104 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1989); see also Capps v. Olson, 780 F.3d 879, 884 (8th Cir. 2015). An officer is justified in using lethal force when she “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or others.” Garner, 471 U.S. at 11.[iii]
The court also noted the rule regarding when officers are entitled to qualified immunity. The court stated
Officer Ashcraft is entitled to qualified immunity if her conduct did not “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1982). We do “not define clearly established law at a high level of generality.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 742, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 179 L. Ed. 2d 1149 (2011). “The dispositive question is whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U.S. 7, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308, 193 L. Ed. 2d 255 (2015) (per curiam) (citation omitted).
Goffin must identify “either ‘controlling authority’ or ‘a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority’ that ‘placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate’ at the time of the alleged violation.” Kelsay v. Ernst, 933 F.3d 975, 979 (8th Cir. 2019) (en banc) (quoting Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 741-42).[iv]
In other words, in order to deny qualified immunity for an officer, there must be case law that is factually similar enough to the case at hand to put a reasonable officer on notice that the conduct was illegal, such that it was “beyond debate.” This is what is meant by the standard of “clearly established” law.
The facts of this case upon which the plaintiff, Goffin, relied upon to argue that the shooting was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment were that he was frisked for weapons prior to running and being shot. Goffin argued that, because he was frisked and no weapons were discovered, Officer Ashcraft should have known he was unarmed and therefore, shooting him was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
In light of Goffin’s argument, the question before the court was whether the law was “clearly established” that it was unreasonable to shoot a suspect after the suspect was frisked and no weapons were discovered.
The court then set out to examine facts relevant to the question at hand. The court noted that when Officer Ashcraft first confronted Goffin she had a reasonable belief that Goffin was dangerous. This was based upon information that Goffin lost a gun fleeing from police, stole two more guns, was drunk, and had threatened someone earlier with the stolen guns. The court further noted that Goffin was unable to provide a case that held that a frisk for weapons that discovered no weapons would eliminate Officer Ashcraft’s reasonable belief that he (Goffin) was armed and dangerous. Because of the absence of case law in support of the plaintiff’s position, the court held
We therefore conclude that Officer Ashcraft is entitled to summary judgment because it is not clearly established that after observing a pat down that removes nothing from a suspect who an officer reasonably believed to be armed and dangerous, an officer cannot use lethal force against that suspect when he flees and moves as though he is reaching for a weapon. Nor do we think this is the “rare obvious case” in which “the unlawfulness of the officer’s conduct is sufficiently clear even though existing precedent does not address similar circumstances.” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 590, 199 L. Ed. 2d 453 (2018) (quotation omitted).[v]
Additionally, because the officer was not liable, the suit against the city must also fail.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court granting summary judgment for all defendants in this case.
[i] No. 18-1430 (8th Cir. Decided October 15, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)