United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
WILLIAM H. STEELE, Chief District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") of the Magistrate Judge, (Doc. 68), and the objection thereto of the sole remaining defendant, (Doc. 71),  concerning the defendant's converted motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 34). The R&R recommends that the defendant's qualified immunity defense be denied and that his motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff's claims against the defendant for excessive force and involuntary hospitalization be denied. (Doc. 68 at 1-2, 30-31). The R&R recommends that the defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted with respect to the plaintiff's claim for illegal taking of money and with respect to any claim against the defendant in his official capacity. ( Id. at 1-2, 9-10). The plaintiff explicitly "agrees with" the R&R in its entirety. (Doc. 72). The defendant objects to the R&R to the extent it recommends denial of his motion for summary judgment and his defense of qualified immunity. (Doc. 71 at 1).
The plaintiff was arrested in February 2011 by undercover narcotics officers following a foot chase. The plaintiff claims that the defendant employed constitutionally excessive force in effecting the arrest.
"[A]ll claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force - deadly or not - in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its reasonableness standard...." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989) (emphasis omitted). "Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is reasonable' under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake." Id. at 396 (internal quotes omitted). "[P]roper application [of the reasonableness test] requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id. Moreover, "[t]he 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." Id. Finally, "[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments - in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving - about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." Id. at 396-97.
In determining whether the force used to effect an arrest was unconstitutionally excessive, the Court must consider the factors set forth in Graham, as well as the first three factors set forth in Leslie v. Ingram, 786 F.2d 1533 (11th Cir. 1986). Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1197-98 & n.7 (11th Cir. 2002).
As noted, the Graham factors are: (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 he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Lee, 284 F.3d at 1197-98 (internal quotes omitted). The Leslie factors are: (4) "the need for the application of force"; (5) "the relationship between the need and amount of force used"; and (6) "the extent of the injury inflicted." Id. at 1198.
Even if a particular use of force is ruled constitutionally excessive, a defendant officer is entitled to qualified immunity unless, at the time of the event, it was "clearly established" that the officer's conduct violated the Constitution. Lee, 284 F.3d at 1193-94. A plaintiff can make this showing in any of three ways. "The first is to point to a materially similar case [that has] already decided that what the police officer was doing was unlawful." Id. at 1198 (internal quotes omitted). Second, a plaintiff "could also show that a broader, clearly established principle should control the novel facts in this situation." Mercado v. City of Orlando, 407 F.3d 1152, 1159 (11th Cir. 2005).
Finally, the plaintiff may "show 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, notwithstanding the lack of case law." Lee, 284 F.3d at 1199 (internal quotes omitted). "Under this test, the law is clearly established, and qualified immunity can be overcome, only if the standards set forth in Graham and our own case law inevitably lead every reasonable officer in [the defendant's] position to conclude the force was unlawful." Id. (internal quotes omitted). Meeting this test "show[s] that an 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." Morton v. Kirkwood, 707 F.3d 1276, 1282 (11th Cir. 2013) (internal quotes omitted).
The plaintiff's evidence, which the Court must credit, is as follows. After the plaintiff ran several blocks, he was caught by the defendant and another undercover officer. They and other officers "begin [sic] to kick and punch me in [the] face and ribs [sic], causing severe pain to my head and side." With the plaintiff "face down on the sidewalk, " some of the officers drew guns on him while others, "holding [him] down, " handcuffed him. (Doc. 13 at 19-20). The plaintiff suffered two fractured ribs and a small laceration behind his ear as a result of the incident. (Doc. 47-2 at 24-25).
The defendant offers additional evidence which, because it does not contradict the plaintiff's evidence, the Court must also consider. The defendant and another undercover officer observed the plaintiff engage in what they reasonably believed to be a drug transaction. When the officers approached the plaintiff, he ran. The officers gave chase and eventually caught the plaintiff. The plaintiff resisted arrest by "pushing away [the defendant's] hands as [he] was trying to handcuff" the plaintiff. A "brief struggle" ensued, during which the defendant "struck the Plaintiff twice on the side in an effort to restrain" him. "Eventually, [the defendant] and other officers were able to place the Plaintiff in handcuffs." (Doc. 36-1; Doc. 36-3; Doc. 50-1).
The Magistrate Judge concluded that all three Graham factors, as well as the first Leslie factor, affirmatively weigh against a finding of excessive force. Specifically, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the drug sale which the defendant reasonably believed he had observed constituted a serious crime; that a reasonable officer under the circumstances would have believed the plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the officer; and that the plaintiff both fled the defendant and the other officer and, once caught, resisted arrest. These circumstances, in turn, confirmed the need for the application of force in effecting the arrest under the first Leslie factor. (Doc. 68 at 17-21). Both the plaintiff and the defendant agree with the Magistrate Judge's assessment of these factors. (Doc. 71 at 3; Doc. 72 at 1). The Court does so as well.
The Magistrate Judge concluded that the remaining two Leslie factors favor the plaintiff - and favor the plaintiff so strongly as to outweigh the three Graham factors and the first Leslie factor and thus create a triable issue as to whether a constitutional violation occurred. In reaching this result, the Magistrate Judge assumed that the plaintiff's only act of resisting arrest was a single instance of pushing away the defendant's hands, which she found too mild a resistance to justify the ...