On October 31, 2022, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Christiansen v. Eral[i], which is instructive regarding whether a violation of department policy can establish that an officer violated the constitution. The relevant facts of Christiansen are as follows:

[Christiansen] alleges that in June 2019 a police officer in North Sioux City, South Dakota, observed Christiansen’s truck leave a casino parking lot in the middle of the night. The officer tried to initiate a traffic stop purportedly for mechanical issues, but Christiansen says that was just a pretext for stopping the truck so he could perform a suspicionless search. Christiansen did not stop his truck but instead fled with the officer in pursuit.

As the chase continued, Christiansen increased his speed to about eighty miles per hour. About two minutes into the chase he drove across the state line into Sioux City, and the officer in pursuit told Sioux City police, including Eral, that he suspected Christiansen of driving while intoxicated. Sioux City police attempted to halt Eral’s flight with “stop sticks,” but a different vehicle hit the sticks instead, and Christiansen had to swerve to avoid it and the sticks. The pursuing officer hit the stop sticks as well, disabling his vehicle.

At that point Eral entered the pursuit. He announced an intention to end the chase with the PIT maneuver at a time when Christiansen was driving between eighty and ninety miles per hour. Moments later Eral struck Christiansen’s truck, causing it to spin into a ditch and collide with a light pole.[ii]

Christiansen sued Officer Eral under Section 1983 for violating his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments for excessive force and violating his substantive due process rights.  He also sued the police chief and the City of Sioux City.  The district court dismissed the suit against all defendants, holding that his complaint did not state sufficient facts to establish his claims.  Christiansen appealed the district court’s grant of the motion to dismiss his claims to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Christiansen raised three arguments on appeal.  First, he argued that Officer Eral knew that engaging in the pursuit and the use of the PIT maneuver violated his police department’s policy.  Specifically, he argued (1) that department policy prohibited engaging in a pursuit unless an offense was committed in his jurisdiction and (2) that policy prohibited the use of a PIT maneuver if the speed was over 40 mph.

Regarding this argument, the court of appeals stated

We’ve repeatedly explained that police department guidelines and policies do not create rights that give rise to a § 1983 action. See Cole v. Bone, 993 F.2d 1328, 1334 (8th Cir. 1993).[iii]

Christiansen attempted to circumvent the above rule by arguing that Officer Eral’s knowledge of the policy showed that his use of force was “objectively unreasonable and an intent to harm” him.[iv]  However, the court of appeals disagreed and stated

[Eral’s] knowing violation of department policy doesn’t transform his actions into unconstitutional behavior. Eral may be subject to internal discipline from the department, but the constitution doesn’t rise and fall with the whims of each police department’s policies, which are free to go above and beyond what the constitution or federal law requires. . . Just because Eral chose to violate department policy doesn’t mean that he acted unreasonably from a constitutional perspective or with malicious intent to harm Christiansen.[v]

The court of appeals discussed Supreme Court precedent which shows that Officer Eral’s actions in the pursuit of Christiansen were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  In Scott v. Harris,[vi] the suspect, Harris, led police on a dangerous, high-speed pursuit that exceeded 90 mph, passed vehicles on the wrong side of the road, and involved Harris crashing into a police car as he fled.  Deputy Scott rammed Harris, at high speed, causing Harris to lose control of his car and strike a utility pole.  Harris was paralyzed.  The Supreme Court held that

[T]he officer’s actions were objectively reasonable because the chase “posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others,” and “no reasonable jury could conclude otherwise.”  See id. at 381, 386. It explained that “[a] police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.See id. at 386.[vii]

The court of appeals stated that Scott was similar to Christiansen’s case and the same principle controls.  Thus, Officer Eral acted in accordance with the Supreme Court holding in Scott.

Christiansen’s second argument was that he did not pose an immediate threat at the time Officer Eral performed the PIT maneuver.  He argued that at the time of the PIT, he and the officers were the only vehicles on the road.  However, the court of appeals noted that, in Scott, at the time the deputy rammed Harris’s car, the officers and Harris were the only vehicles on the road.  The court stated

[T]he Supreme Court in Scott was presented with a similar situation; there the Court acknowledged that at the time the police officer rammed the motorist’s car, “it was not threatening any other vehicles or pedestrians,” see id. at 380 n.7, and yet held that wasn’t enough to render the officer’s actions unreasonable. In fact, the court suggested it might be less reasonable for an officer to trigger an accident when other cars and pedestrians were present. See id.[viii]

The primary consideration for the court was that Christian had already threatened the safety of officers and other motorists by his flight.   The court of appeals then held

We think it was reasonable as a matter of law for the officers to think that, if the chase continued, Christiansen posed a risk of serious harm or even death to others he encountered along the way. See Pasco ex rel. Pasco v. Knoblauch, 566 F.3d 572, 580-81 (5th Cir. 2009).[ix]

Christiansen’s third argument on appeal was that, by conducting the PIT maneuver in close proximity to the light pole, Officer Eral showed a malicious intent to harm him, because the pole was visible and known to Eral.  While Christiansen’s complaint did not contain those allegations, the court of appeals addressed the argument.  This formed the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process violation.

The court opined that it is not reasonable to believe that the officer could plan such an outcome while in a high-speed pursuit at 90 mph; rather, the court stated that the officer made a split-second decision to end a dangerous chase using a method that the Supreme Court has previously approved.  Specifically, the court stated

[We] wouldn’t hold that Eral acted unreasonably or with a malicious intent to harm because it’s not plausible to believe that an officer, traveling eighty to ninety miles per hour, could perform the PIT maneuver with any confidence that the resulting crash, if there is one, would involve the fleeing motorist crashing against the pole in a manner that would elevate the risk of harm. We think that the complaint demonstrates only that Eral made a split-second decision in a high-pressure circumstance to end a chase in a manner that the Supreme Court has already blessed; there is simply no indication from the complaint that Eral had a purpose “unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest.”[x]

Thus, the Fourteenth Amendment claim also failed.

Further, since Christiansen failed to establish an underlying constitutional violation, the claims against the chief and city also fail.

Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of the motion to dismiss the suit.

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. 21-3885 (8th Cir. Decided October 31, 2022)

[ii] Id. at 2-3

[iii] Id. at 4-5 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 5

[v] Id. (emphasis added)

[vi] 550 U.S. 372 (2007)

[vii] Christiansen at 6-7 (emphasis added)

[viii] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)

[ix] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)

[x] Id. at 8-9 (emphasis added)

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