On September 23, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Teel v. Lozada[i], in which the court examined whether an officer was entitled to qualified immunity when he shot a woman that was armed with a knife, suicidal and walking slowly toward the officer.  The facts of Teel, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

The facts elicited during discovery are as follows.2 The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office dispatch notified officers that a 911 call came through describing a person—later determined to be Mrs. Teel—who had “possibly cut herself,” was “under the influence of alcohol,” and had a knife. Doc. 39-4 at 2-3.3 She had in fact cut herself: Dr. Teel, an emergency medical doctor, testified that he discovered his wife in their master bedroom, where she had slit both of her wrists, “was bleeding out,” and needed to go to the hospital. Doc. 46-10 at 78.

Officer Samuel Earman, on patrol in the area, responded as the primary officer en route, and Officer Lozada, also on patrol at the time, responded that he would provide backup. Officer Lozada, however, arrived first to the [*3]  Teels’ home, and he did not wait for Officer Earman to arrive. (Officer Earman would arrive minutes after Officer Lozada and hear gunshots from the threshold of the house.) Officer Lozada knocked on the front door. When no one answered, he opened the front door, which was unlocked, and saw Dr. Teel walking down the stairs towards the door. He and Dr. Teel spoke for about a minute. Dr. Teel told Officer Lozada that his wife was upstairs, was trying to kill herself, was under the influence of narcotics and/or alcohol, and was armed with a knife that Dr. Teel had unsuccessfully attempted to take away. Officer Lozada observed what he believed to be blood on Dr. Teel’s shirt. He understood that Mrs. Teel had not tried to harm Dr. Teel. Officer Lozada concedes that before encountering Mrs. Teel, he had no objective facts indicating that she was a danger to anyone other than herself.

Officer Lozada then entered the home, told Dr. Teel to stay downstairs, and climbed the stairs toward the master bedroom. As Officer Lozada advanced up the stairs, he drew his gun and held it to his chest.

When Officer Lozada reached a sitting room at the top of the stairs, he saw Mrs. Teel in the next room, the [*4]  master bedroom, wearing a bathrobe and lying quietly on a canopy bed with her feet dangling from it. Between Officer Lozada and Mrs. Teel was the doorway to the bedroom, a chest at the foot of the bed, and most of the bed, which had large round columns supporting the canopy. Officer Lozada paused for 2 to 3 seconds at the top of the stairs and then walked to the doorway of the bedroom. He observed that Mrs. Teel’s hands were tucked behind her back. At this point, Officer Lozada testified, he still knew of no fact suggesting that Mrs. Teel would present a threat to anyone but herself. Officer Lozadadid not observe any blood on Mrs.Teel’s body.

Officer Lozada announced himself and said in an assertive tone, “Susan, Sheriff’s Office. Let me see your hands.” Doc. 29-1 at 10. Mrs. Teel complied with the order. She brought both hands from behind her back, revealing a kitchen knife with an eight-inch blade in her left hand. Mrs. Teel was 60 years old, 5’2″ tall, and 120 pounds. She stood from the bed and, standing with the canopy bed between her and officer Lozada, held the knife with the blade pointed down over her head. Officer Lozada took “two or three” steps inside the bedroom. Doc. 39-1 [*5]  at 112. Mrs. Teel remained on the other side of the bed from Officer Lozada for 8 to 10 seconds. During that time, he gave her no instruction or warning. He said nothing to her at all.

After the 8 to 10 second pause, Mrs. Teel began walking “gradual[ly]” in Officer Lozada’s direction. Id. at 102. The sequence of events that occurred next is not precisely clear, but it is undisputed that the events happened quickly. As Mrs. Teel was walking around the bed, she said “Fuck you. Kill me.” Doc. 39-2:17. Officer Lozada then pointed his gun at Mrs. Teel. He also took a step back and radioed emergency traffic reporting that Mrs. Teel had a knife. Mrs. Teel said, “Come on, just do it.” Id. at 9, 53. Officer Lozada then said to Mrs. Teel, “don’t come.” Doc. 39-4 at 3. By this point, only four minutes had passed since Officer Lozada’s arrival at the Teel residence.

Mrs. Teel never made a sudden movement or ran or lunged at Officer Lozada. Nor did she point the knife in his direction. Officer Lozada never instructed Mrs. Teel to drop the knife, never clearly instructed her to stop moving, and never warned that he would shoot her if she failed to comply. When asked why he did not issue warnings or tell Mrs. Teel to drop [*6]  the knife or stop moving, Officer Lozada testified that he “was on the radio with dispatch to let them know with the emergency traffic and that she was armed,” and “by the time [he] was doing that, [he] looked up” and Mrs. Teel “was right there.” Doc. 39-1 at 106. Officer Lozada admitted that he had the option of fully retreating, leaving the bedroom and even walking down the stairs if Mrs. Teel continued to advance; he chose not to.

Instead, Officer Lozada fired his gun at Mrs. Teel. It is not clear from the record how far Officer Lozada was from Mrs. Teel at the time he shot her. Officer Lozada testified to various distances, ranging from 6 to 10 feet. Because on review of summary judgment orders we must view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we accept the longer of these distances. Officer Lozada could tell his bullet hit Mrs. Teel because her body shuddered. He testified that she kept walking in his direction at the “same speed,” a gradual pace. Id. at 115. Officer Lozada stepped back again. Two seconds after he fired the first shot, he fired again. Two seconds after that, when Mrs. Teel did not stop moving in his direction, Officer Lozada fired at her a third time. [*7]  Mrs. Teel fell. In addition to his gun, Officer Lozada was armed with pepper spray and a taser, yet he used neither. He testified that since he had already shown Mrs. Teel his gun, he was “not going to deescalate to non-lethal.” Id. at 124.

Officer Lozada radioed for emergency medical services, telling dispatch that shots had been fired. Four minutes had passed since Officer Lozada arrived at the residence. Officer Earman had by that point entered the home; he was at the base of the stairs yelling Officer Lozada’s name. Mrs. Teel’s body was lying in the doorway of the bedroom. Officers and Dr. Teel attempted to render aid, but, approximately nine minutes after he shot her, Mrs. Teel succumbed to her wounds. The Sheriff’s Office’s investigation revealed that Officer Lozada had shot Mrs. Teel once in the chest and twice in the abdomen.[ii]

Dr. Teel sued the officer and the sheriff for violating Mrs. Teel’s right to be free from unreasonable force under the Fourth Amendment, as well as state law claims.  The district court reasoned that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in his use of deadly force, and as such, was entitled to summary judgment.  Further, since the district court ruled there was no constitutional violation they also granted summary judgment in the claim against the sheriff and deputy on the state law claims.  Dr. Teel appealed the grant of summary judgment in this case.

The Eleventh Circuit first explained how qualified immunity works.  In simple terms, when an officer is sued, if the officer acted in a discretionary capacity, the officer can file a motion for qualified immunity.  Acting in a “discretionary capacity” means the officer was making choices between various options (such as enter a home or not, use a gun or a taser, etc…), When the officer does so, the plaintiff must then allege sufficient evidence to show (1) that the officer violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and (2) the right was “clearly established” such that every reasonable officer in the same situation would have known the conduct was unlawful.  The law is “clearly established” when there is precedent from the Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or highest court in the state of occurrence, that is factually similar enough to put the officer on notice.  Additionally, in the absence of court precedent, there are situations where the unlawfulness of particular conduct should be obviously clear to every reasonable officer.  This is the “obvious clarity” method to show the law was clearly established.

Qualified Immunity – Prong One: Did the officer violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights?

The court then set out to determine if there was a constitutional violation.

The court first examined the legal principles that are relevant to this issue and stated

The Fourth Amendment‘s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures includes the right to be free from the excessive use of force. U.S. Const. amend. IV, see Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394-95, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 104 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1989). “In determining whether [an officer’s] force was reasonable, we must determine whether a reasonable officer would believe that this level of force is necessary in the situation at hand.” Mercado v. City of Orlando, 407 F.3d 1152, 1157 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). We ascertain the objective reasonableness of a seizure by balancing the “nature and quality of the intrusion” against the “governmental interest at stake.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Turning to the nature and quality of the intrusion in this case, we recognize that “[t]he intrusiveness of a seizure by means of deadly force is unmatched.” Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 9, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 85 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1985)  Officer Lozada’s gunshots were fatal. Thus, we weigh heavily the nature and quality of the intrusion and next consider the governmental interest at stake. 

Graham generally requires that we weigh the governmental interest at stake by examining the totality of the circumstances, including [1] “the severity of the crime at issue, [2] whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and [3] whether [she] is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight,” keeping in mind that 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, 490 U.S. at 396. The use of deadly force is reasonable only if “the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Garner, 471 U.S. at 3.[iii]

The Eleventh Circuit then applied the three factors from Graham to Teel’s case.  The court first noted that because Teel’s case does not involve a criminal arrest, the factors do not fit neatly into the situation.

The first factor in Graham is the severity of the crime at issue.  Here, the officer was not investigating a crime.  Rather, he was there because Teel’s husband called the police about her attempted suicide.  The court stated that this factor weighs in favor of the plaintiff.

The second factor in Graham is whether Mrs. Teel posed an immediate threat to the officer or others.  The court noted that Mrs. Teel, who was 60 years old, 5’2” tall and 120 pounds, was armed with a knife and walking in the officer’s direction.  However, the court also noted that she was moving slowly rather than attempting to rapidly close the distance to the officer, as if to attack him.  Additionally, she was not “pointing the knife” at the officer and she was 10 feet away from him.  The officer also said that Dr. Teel told him that she did not threaten him with the knife.  As such, the court said that there is a genuine issue of material fact, which is appropriate for a tier of fact (a jury) to hear the case and decide the issue.  For now, the court held that this factor weighed in favor of the plaintiff.

The third factor in Graham is whether Mrs. Teel was actively resisting arrest or fleeing.  This was not an arrest situation.  Additionally, there was no evidence that she physically struggled with the officer.  Further, the officer told her to show her hands and she complied, also showing her knife.  The court observed that the officer never told her to drop the knife or to stop, despite have time to do so.  In fact, rather than give her commands, he radioed the information to other officers on his portable radio.  The court held that this factor weighed in favor of the plaintiff.

The court of appeals then held

This case “is not one in which deadly force was used to prevent the escape of a suspect who had committed a violent or otherwise serious crime or who might harm others if not apprehended.” Cantu, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, 2020 WL 5270645, at *9. Rather, although Mrs. Teel had committed no crime, and was not an immediate threat to him, Officer Lozada—without issuing a command or warning—shot her three times, killing her. Viewing the evidence and, critically to this case, drawing all inferences in favor of Dr. Teel, we conclude that “[a]ll of the factors articulated in Graham weigh in favor of” Dr. Teel, Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1157,9 and so Officer Lozada used excessive force against Mrs. Teel. The district court erred in concluding otherwise.[iv]

Therefore, the plaintiff established a constitutional violation, which satisfied the first prong required to defeat the officer’s qualified immunity.

Qualified Immunity – Prong Two: Was the law clearly established? 

As previously stated, the law can be “clearly established” by existing court precedent that is factually similar or by “obvious clarity.”  The court first explained the concept of “clearly established law” as it related to existing court precedent.  The court stated

To be clearly established, a legal principle must be ‘settled law,’ meaning that it is not merely suggested, but rather ‘is dictated by controlling authority or a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority.'” Glasscox, 903 F.3d at 1217 (quoting Wesby, 138 S. Ct. at 589-90). “Close similarity of the facts between the cases is ‘especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where the Court has recognized that it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.'” Cantu, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, 2020 WL 5270645, at *12 (quoting [*17]  Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U.S. 7, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308, 193 L. Ed. 2d 255 (2015)).[v]

Second, the court explained the concept of “obvious clarity” which occurs when there may be an absence of court precedent but yet the case is obviously a violation of person’s rights.  The court stated

Importantly, however, “the rule requiring particularized case law to establish clearly the law in excessive force cases” has a “narrow exception,” Priester v. City of Riviera Beach, 208 F.3d 919, 926 (11th Cir. 2000), known as the “obvious clarity” rule, Oliver v. Fiorino, 586 F.3d 898, 907 (11th Cir. 2009). Under this exception, “[e]ven without a close fit,” a plaintiff “can clear the clearly established law hurdle and defeat a qualified immunity defense by showing that the official’s conduct lies so obviously at the very core of what the Fourth Amendment prohibits that the unlawfulness of the conduct was readily apparent to the official.” Cantu, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, 2020 WL 5270645, at *12 (internal quotation marks omitted). “To come within the narrow exception, a plaintiff must show that the official’s conduct was so far beyond the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force that the official had to know he was violating the Constitution even without caselaw on point.” Priester, 208 F.3d at 926 (alteration adopted) (internal quotation marks omitted). “This test entails determining whether application of the excessive force standard would inevitably lead every reasonable officer in the Defendant[‘s] position to conclude the force was unlawful.Id. (alterations adopted) (internal quotation marks omitted).[vi]

The court of appeals then stated that Teel’s case is one of “obvious clarity” where it would be readily apparent to any reasonable officer that the officer’s conduct in this situation was a violation of Teel’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.  The court explained

Officer Lozada’s use of force was wholly unnecessary to any legitimate purpose here. As we have explained, Mrs. Teel was not suspected of committing any crime. See Cantu, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, 2020 WL 5270645, at *14. She was suicidal; the purpose of the family’s 911 call was to keep her alive, and that should have been the purpose of Officer Lozada’s interaction with her given his testimony that he believed her to be a threat only to herself. See Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1160. Yet Officer Lozada drew his gun even before he encountered Mrs. Teel, pointed the gun at her before she came near him, and fired at her without warning. Mrs. Teel was not pointing the knife at Officer Lozada or charging at him. By his own testimony she was coming toward him slowly, and he had the opportunity to retreat beyond her reach but simply chose to shoot her instead. Moreover, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Dr. Teel, Officer Lozada had time to warn Mrs. Teel, or even to direct her clearly to disarm herself but failed to do so. See Cantu, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, 2020 WL 5270645, at *14. Given these facts, we conclude that Officer Lozada did not need “case law to know that by intentionally shooting [Mrs. Teel three times], he was violating [her] Fourth Amendment rights.” Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1160.[vii]

The officer argued that the “21-foot rule,” on which many officers have been trained years ago, prevents the law from being “clearly established” with obvious clarity.  The 21-foot rule simply said that an offender with a knife that rushed toward the officer could stab the officer before the officer could draw his weapon and shoot the offender if he was within 21 feet of the officer.  The court said that this rule was inapplicable in this case because Mrs. Teel was injured from self-inflicted wounds, and she was walking slowly, not running, toward the officer.  Additionally, at this stage of the litigation, the court was required to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.

The court also noted that the officer may prevail on qualified immunity later at or after trial on a judgment as a matter of law, but at this stage of the case, qualified immunity is not appropriate.

As such the court held the plaintiff met both prongs needed to defeat qualified immunity.  Thus, the district court was reversed on qualified immunity as well as the other counts that were dismissed.



[i] No. 19-14530 (11th Cir. Decided September 23, 2020)

[ii] Id. at 2-7

[iii] Id. at 10-11

[iv] Id. at 15

[v] Id. at 16-17 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 17 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 18-19

Print Friendly, PDF & Email