August 30, 2022, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Robinson v. City of Huntsville[i], in which officers responded to a call of an emotionally disturbed woman with a gun.  The relevant facts of Robinson are as follows:

On May 30, 2019, Officers Collum and Henderson were dispatched to an apartment complex in Huntsville, Alabama, in response to a “series of 911 calls about an erratic individual named Crystal Ragland who may have been armed.” When they arrived, the officers spoke with the apartment manager, “who described Ragland as having a gun and who said other tenants stated she was waving a gun.” The manager also said that Ragland was a veteran who likely suffered from PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and that she had been unstable in recent weeks and staring out her patio window. The officers responded that they would “obviously . . . try and get her some help.”

But when the officers arrived at Ragland’s apartment, they failed to “utilize any de-escalation” or crisis-intervention techniques for addressing subjects suffering from mental illness. Instead, they approached her with guns drawn and yelled verbal commands that “amplified . . . her anxiety and PTSD.” Within a minute of knocking on her front door, Collum and Henderson had “shot and struck Ragland with multiple gunshot wounds from which she later died.”. .

The bodycam footage—consisting of two videos, one from each officer, of differing quality—shows the officers approach Ragland’s ground-floor apartment after speaking to the apartment manager. Collum took position near the patio door while Henderson went to the front door. Henderson knocked several times and said, “Hey Crystal, Huntsville police, can we talk to you real quick?” He then backed away and pointed his gun at the door.

Instead of answering the front door, Ragland went to the patio door where she encountered Collum, who told Ragland to put her hands in the air with his gun drawn but not aimed. Ragland raised her hands and said she did not have a weapon, and Collum asked her to step outside onto the patio. Ragland lowered her hands and asked, “Why are you pointing your weapon at me?” Collum responded by telling Ragland twice to “get your hands up,” raising his voice, and Ragland then told Collum to “shoot my fucking ass.”

Henderson soon joined Collum at the back door. The officers yelled for Ragland to “get your hands up” and “show us your other hand.” Ragland briefly put her hands above her head as if to comply. But she then dropped her arms and reached her right hand towards her right front pocket, grasping the handle of what appears to be a handgun. The officers immediately fired multiple shots at Ragland, who later died of her injuries. As the second amended complaint indicates, the bodycam footage clearly shows what looks like a gun on the ground just behind and to the side of where Ragland fell.[ii]

The officers and the city filed a motion to dismiss the suit.  The district court granted the motion and dismissed the suit, holding that Robinson did not state a plausible Fourth Amendment claim because the facts of the case, even viewed most favorable to Robinson, do not provide evidence that the officers or city violated the Fourth Amendment.  Robinson appealed the dismissal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

While Robinson raised several procedural arguments on appeal, this article will focus on the Fourth Amendment argument.

The court first noted the legal principles relevant to whether Robinson has made a plausible Fourth Amendment claim regarding the shooting.  The court noted the following legal principles:

The court also examined relevant legal precedent from the Eleventh Circuit.  First, they discussed Shaw v. City of Selma,[viii] in which police shot and killed a man who had not committed a crime, not resisted arrest and not attempted to escape.  Rather, the man was mentally ill, holding a hatchet and advancing toward an officer despite verbal commands to stop.  The court held that “the use of deadly force to protect the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment under those circumstances.”[ix]  Thus, the court relied on the second factor from Graham v. Connor, particularly the threat posed to the officers, in reaching its decision.

Second, they discussed Garczynski v. Bradshaw,[x] in which several officers shot and killed Garczynski, who had not committed a crime, was not resisting arrest and was not attempting to escape.  The court of appeals described the facts this case as follows:

Upon locating the man whom they believed to be armed and suicidal, but without any indication he was a danger to others, the officers used a “dynamic approach” that involved rushing his car, breaking multiple windows, and shouting commands at him to show his hands and drop the gun he was holding. See id. When the man brought the gun from his own temple and swung it in the direction of the officers, the officers began shooting. Id. at 1167-68.[xi]

The Eleventh Circuit held that “the officer’s use of deadly force to protect themselves and other officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”[xii]  Again, the court relied on the second factor from Graham v. Connor, particularly the threat posed to the officers, in reaching its decision.

The court of appeals then applied legal principles and precedent to the facts of Robinson’s case.  In Robinson, Ragland (the decedent) was reportedly an emotionally disturbed Army veteran with PTSD and a former traumatic brain injury, who had been brandishing a firearm.  When officers arrived, Ragland was confrontational and refused to put her hands up, although she did briefly raise her hands.  However, she then dropped her hands and reached toward her right pocket, in which on body camera one can see what appears to be the “handle of a handgun.”  At this point, the officers began shooting at Ragland.  She was hit and subsequently died from her wounds.  A handgun could be seen on body camera footage on the floor near where she fell.  The officers had no reason to believe the gun was inoperable at the time of the incident.

The court of appeals held

Under our precedent, including Shaw and Garczynski, the officers reasonably perceived that Ragland’s reaching for a gun posed a threat of serious physical harm, and their use of deadly force to protect themselves and each other did not violate the Fourth Amendment. [xiii]

Robinson argued that the body camera video upon which the court relied for reaching its decision was not clear regarding whether Ragland “actually grasped” the gun.  The court of appeals replied that that distinction is not material to their holding in this case.  The court explained

Based on our careful review the body cam footage, it shows without ambiguity Ragland reaching for what appears to be a gun, in defiance of the officers’ commands, given at gunpoint, to put her hands up, following reports that she had been waving the gun at others. In these tense and dangerous circumstances, our precedent makes it clear the officers were not required to wait and see what she intended to do with the gun before resorting to deadly force. See Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 821 (11th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he law does not require officers in a tense and dangerous situation to wait until the moment a suspect uses a deadly weapon to act to stop the suspect.”).[xiv]

Robinson also argued that the officers used unreasonable tactics in this situation and those tatics created “the dangerous environment that led to Ragland’s death.”[xv]  Robinson argued that the officers made no attempt to de-escalate the situation, and rather, their tactics escalated the situation.  The district court even noted that the officers’ tactics appeared to have escalated the situation.  However, the court of appeals noted that the tactics employed in Ragland’s case were “more measured than the dynamic tactics [they] upheld in Garczynski.”[i]  The court then stated

As we just explained, the use of deadly force was justified under our precedent in response to Ragland’s display of erratic behavior, her defying of officer commands, and her reaching for a gun.[xvii]

As such, the tactics employed by the officers that may have escalated rather than de-escalated the situation do no render the officer’s reasonable use of force unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Lastly, the court examined the claim against the City of Huntsville.  The court stated that, to impose liability on a municipality, a plaintiff must show

(1) that his constitutional rights were violated; (2) that the municipality had a custom or policy that constituted deliberate indifference to that constitutional right; and (3) that the policy or custom caused the violation.[iii]

In this case, Robinson was unable to establish the underlying constitutional violation of Ragland’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.  As such, the municipal liability claim must fail.

Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the holding of the district court dismissing the claims.

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

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Citations

[i] No. 21-13979 (11th Cir. Decided August 30, 2022 (Unpublished /Non-Argument Calendar)

[ii] Id. at 2-5

[iii] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)

[v] Id. (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)

[viii] 884 F.3d 1093 (11th Cir. 2018)

[ix] Robinson at 10

[x] 573 F.3d 1158 (11th Cir. 2009)

[xi] Robinson at 10

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id. at 11

[xiv] Id. at 12-13 (emphasis added)

[xv] Id. at 13

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id. at 14

 

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