On April 12, 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Cunningham v. State of Michigan Dept. of State Police[i], which serves as an excellent review regarding the law related to reasonable force under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Cunningham, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Sonstrom was patrolling near Romulus, Michigan, when he noticed a car with darkly tinted windows. Some window tints are illegal in Michigan, so Sonstrom pulled the car over. The driver was Frazier Cunningham, a 450-pound adult man.
Sonstrom ran Cunningham’s information and discovered that Cunningham had a long criminal history. Cunningham’s convictions ranged from armed robbery to assault on a police officer, as well as various firearm charges. But when questioned, Cunningham claimed he had no “major” convictions. That rang alarm bells for Sonstrom—he believed that Cunningham’s answers were deceptive, and that Cunningham appeared nervous. So he asked Cunningham to step out of the car. He then had a K-9 sniff the car’s exterior. When the K-9 alerted, Sonstrom searched the car’s interior. Inside he found a loaded 9mm handgun.
Sonstrom’s dashboard camera captured what happened next. Sonstrom asked Cunningham to approach the car and drew his Taser. With the Taser trained on Cunningham, Sonstrom ordered Cunningham to turn around and get on his knees. Cunningham complied. Cunningham had been on a phone call, so Sonstrom ordered him to drop the phone. When Cunningham did not immediately comply, Sonstrom pushed him to the ground. Sonstrom then handcuffed Cunningham and loaded him into his squad car.[ii]
Cunningham sued and alleged that Trooper Sonstrom used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment by (1) striking him with the Taser, and (2) pushing him to the ground and pointing the Taser at him. The district court granted summary judgment for the trooper and held the use of force was reasonable. Cunningham appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit first noted that in order for a plaintiff to defeat an officer’s motion for qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show (1) that the officer violated a constitutional right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the violation such that another reasonable officer would have known he was violating the right.
Next, the court examined the legal principles that are relevant to whether Trooper Sonstrom used excessive force in this case. The court stated
The constitutional right at issue here is the right against unreasonable seizures in the Fourth Amendment. Courts have “long recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 104 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1989). But not all force is permissible: Officers may only use force that is objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Id. at 396-97.[iii]
On appeal, Cunningham argued that the trooper used excessive force when he (1) struck him with the Taser and (2) pushed to the ground while pointing the Taser at him.
The Sixth Circuit first examined the allegation that the trooper struck Cunningham with the Taser. The court noted that, at this stage of the litigation, they must view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff; however, if evidence, such as video, clearly contradicts the plaintiff’s allegations, the court is not required to accept the plaintiff’s version of events. In this case, the court noted that the trooper’s dash camera showed the arrest. The court stated that the video does not show “movement consistent with [the trooper] striking Cunningham with the Taser.”[iv] Therefore, since no reasonable jury could conclude that the trooper struck Cunningham with the Taser, summary judgment in favor of the trooper is appropriate for this allegation.
The court of appeals then examined the second allegation of excessive force, particularly that the trooper pushed Cunningham to the ground and pointed his Taser at him.
The court stated that the trooper’s actions during this arrest must be viewed in the context of the facts known to the trooper. The court then discussed what the trooper knew about Cunningham. Particularly, during the stop, the trooper checked Cunningham’s criminal history and learned that he had a history of violent crime, assaulting police and illegal firearm possession, and the trooper had just found a firearm in Cunningham’s car. Further, Cunningham was 450 pounds, which would make him difficult to restrain.
The court also acknowledged the danger an officer faces immediately before an arrest. The court stated
One of the most dangerous moments for a police officer is just before a suspect is handcuffed. Usually, the officer and suspect are in close quarters. The suspect is unrestrained and the officer has just told the suspect that he is under arrest—which sometimes prompts the suspect to attack the arresting officer or try to escape.[v]
Therefore, in consideration of Cunningham’s serious criminal history, his size, his failure to immediately comply with the trooper’s command to put his phone down on the ground, and the inherent risks at the time of arrest, the court of appeals held that pushing Cunningham to the ground and pointing a Taser at him were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
As such, Trooper Sonstom was entitled to qualified immunity.
[i] No. 20-1619 (6th Cir. Decided April 12, 2021 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 3
[iv] Id. at 5
[v] Id. at 5-6