On September 10, 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Renfroe v. Parker[i], in which the court examined whether officers were entitled to qualified immunity for the shooting death of an unarmed man who was attacking an officer. The facts of Renfroe, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On the evening of June 8, 2018, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department (“MCSD”) received a 911 call from an individual named Willard McDaniel, who reported an attempted burglary. Mr. McDaniel provided a description of the vehicle the suspects were driving to the 911 dispatcher, who then radioed all on-duty MCSD deputies. Deputy Parker responded to the call. The deputy, who was in his MCSD uniform and driving a marked MCSD vehicle, drove to Old Natchez Trace Road, where the events detailed below took place. His dash camera, which was engaged, shows some of the encounter, but not the fatal shooting.
Mr. Renfroe’s wife Amanda witnessed the shooting. But she was not deposed, and she did not submit a sworn declaration or affidavit to the district court. Because she provided no competent summary judgment evidence, only the dash camera footage and Deputy Parker’s testimony are available for our consideration.
A. Video Footage
The dash camera footage shows Deputy Parker parking some distance behind the Renfroes’ truck and the driver-side door of the Renfroes’ truck opening. Mr. Renfroe exits through that door and begins walking [*3] across the road and toward the police car, raising his arms slightly at his sides. Then, apparently without prompting from Deputy Parker, Mr. Renfroe kneels face-down on the ground. The passenger door of the truck opens, and Mrs. Renfroe begins walking toward her husband. Mr. Renfroe then gets up and begins running toward the police vehicle and, presumably, Deputy Parker, who by then was outside the vehicle. Deputy Parker tases Mr. Renfroe, who keeps running and appears to rip the taser darts off his chest. Mr. Renfroe then runs out of view of the dash cam. The video then reflects a collision, with someone grunting off-camera and the police vehicle swaying slightly. As Mrs. Renfroe runs toward the police vehicle, four gunshots can be heard in quick succession. Deputy Parker then radios to say “shots fired.”
B. Deputy Parker’s Testimony
According to Deputy Parker, who submitted a sworn declaration to the district court, Mr. Renfroe yelled “now, M . . F . . ., let’s do this” as he ran toward the deputy. The video footage does not capture this alleged statement. However, the microphone for the dash camera is inside the police vehicle, and all voices outside the vehicle are muffled.
Deputy Parker also alleges that, after Mr. Renfroe ran out of view of the dash cam, he began to assault Deputy Parker. Deputy Parker testified that he tried to protect himself from Mr. Renfroe, but that Mr. Renfroe continued the assault by “placing his hands around [Deputy Parker’s] throat” and “hitting [Deputy Parker] on the side of the head.” Deputy Parker avers that he attempted to move down the side of his vehicle, but realized that he could not escape Mr. Renfroe’s attack. He then fired four shots toward Mr. Renfroe’s upper torso.[ii]
Renfroe was struck by the deputy’s shots and died. His wife filed suit on behalf of his estate. She alleged that the deputy and sheriff used excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment for the deputy and the sheriff in their individual capacities. The court subsequently also dismissed the official capacity claims. Mrs. Renfroe appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Renfroe argued
[T]hat (1) the qualified immunity doctrine violates the separation of powers and is therefore unconstitutional and void; (2) the district court erred in excluding her expert report; (3) the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Defendant-Appellees on her Section 1983 claims; and (4) the district court should have allowed discovery on the official-capacity claims.[iii]
The first issue was whether the doctrine of qualified immunity violates the separation of powers. Renfroe argued that under the separation of powers, the legislative branch is supposed to make the laws, yet “qualified immunity” was created by the judicial branch. The court of appeals stated
Both the Supreme Court and this circuit, however, have consistently recognized the doctrine of qualified immunity for over 50 years. See Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 557, 87 S. Ct. 1213, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288 (1967).[iv]
The court then stated that until either the Supreme Court or Congress alters qualified immunity, they must follow that doctrine. Therefore, Renfroe’s first argument failed.
Renfroe’s second issue was whether the court should have allowed the admission of the plaintiff’s expert witness’s report. The court of appeals stated
Experts cannot “render conclusions of law” or provide opinions on legal issues. Goodman v. Harris Cnty., 571 F.3d 388, 399 (5th Cir. 2009). “Reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment or Due Process Clause is a legal conclusion.” United States v. Williams, 343 F.3d 423, 435 (5th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It is therefore error to allow expert testimony on whether an officer used unreasonable force. See id.[v]
Renfroe’s expert opined, in part, that the deputy’s use of deadly force was “objectively unreasonable” and that the decision to shoot was “a greater level of force than any other reasonable officer would have used” in this situation.[vi]
Therefore, the expert report was properly excluded from evidence.
The third issue was whether the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the deputy and the sheriff. Renfroe argued that there were questions of material fact and summary judgment is not appropriate if there are questions of material facts. Thus, she argued the case should have been allowed to go to trial.
The court of appeals examined the legal principles that govern this issue. The court stated
A qualified immunity defense alters the usual summary judgment burden of proof.” Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010). Once an officer invokes the defense, the plaintiff must rebut it by establishing (1) that the officer violated a federal statutory or constitutional right and (2) that the unlawfulness of the conduct was “clearly established at the time.” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 589, 199 L. Ed. 2d 453 (2018) (quoting Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664, 132 S. Ct. 2088, 182 L. Ed. 2d 985 (2012)); see Gates v. Tex. Dep’t of Protective & Regul. Servs., 537 F.3d 404, 419 (5th Cir. 2008). “[A]ll inferences are drawn in [the plaintiff’s] favor.” Brown, 623 F.3d at 253. But “a plaintiff’s version of the facts should not be accepted for purposes of qualified immunity when it is ‘blatantly contradicted’ and ‘utterly discredited’ by video recordings.” Hanks v. Rogers, 853 F.3d 738, 744 (5th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted); see also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380-81, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007).[vii]
Mrs. Renfroe argued that the material fact at issue was whether the use of deadly force was reasonable because her husband was “unarmed, shoeless” and wearing pajama bottoms, and he could not have put a reasonable officer in fear of serious bodily injury or death. She argued that the district court chose to credit the deputies’ version of events over the plaintiff’s version. However, the court of appeals noted that Renfroe did not put forth any evidence to support the plaintiff’s version of events. The plaintiff is required to put forth evidence beyond the pleadings in the suit. Evidence could consist of affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions; this is required to create a dispute of material fact. The deputies, on the other hand, put forth the evidence that Mr. Renfroe posed a threat. The taser had no effect on Renfroe. A truck similar to Renfroe’s was present during an attempted burglary. The deputies had corroborating video evidence. While the fight was out of view of the patrol car’s camera, the camera did show the car shaking from the physical fight initiated by Mr. Renfroe.
Mrs. Renfroe also emphasized the fact that Mr. Renfroe was unarmed at the time he was shot and that the deputy did not warn him prior to shooting. However, the court of appeals stated
But this court has previously found that an individual need not be armed for a law enforcement officer to believe that he is in danger of serious physical harm. See, e.g., Colston v. Barnhart, 130 F.3d 96, 99-100 (5th Cir. 1997). And as this court recognized in Colston, an officer’s duty to warn a suspect before using deadly force depends on whether that officer has time to do so. Id. at 100. The video footage reflects that, given Mr. Renfroe’s swift approach, it was not feasible for Deputy Parker to issue a warning.[viii]
The court of appeals then held that Mrs. Renfroe has not provided evidence to suggest a genuine dispute of material fact that relates to whether the deputy acted unreasonably under the Fourth Amendment when he shot Mr. Renfroe. Therefore, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in this case.
The fourth issue was whether the district court erred when it denied discovery on the official capacity claims. In order to establish an official capacity claim, a plaintiff must first allege sufficient facts to show a constitutional violation. Mrs. Renfroe had not met that requirement and the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court denying discovery.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the decisions of the the district court in this case.
[i] No. 19-60677 (5th Cir. Decided September 10, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 5-6
[iv] Id. at 6
[v] Id. at 7
[vii] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)
[viii] Id. at 11 (emphasis added)