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Beckman v. Hamilton

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division

April 28, 2017

TIFFANY BECKMAN, as the personal representative of the estate of Mitchell Campbell, Plaintiff,
v.
JOE HAMILTON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Tiffany Beckman, as the personal representative of the estate of Mitchell Campbell, brings this action against Lauderdale County Deputy Sheriff Joe Hamilton in his individual capacity, alleging a violation of Campbell's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights for the alleged use of excessive force, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See generally doc. 1. The court has for consideration Deputy Hamilton's motion for summary judgment, doc. 27, which is fully briefed, docs. 28; 35; 38, and ripe for review. For the reasons stated more fully below, in particular, all the circumstances relevant to Deputy Hamilton's use of force and because “it is reasonable, and therefore constitutionally permissible, for an officer to use deadly force when he has ‘probable cause to believe that his own life is in peril, '” see Singletary v. Vargas, 804 F.3d 1174, 1181 (11th Cir. 2015), the motion is due to be granted.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” To support a summary judgment motion, the parties must cite to “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Moreover, “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports the non-moving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Furthermore, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On the evening of August 10, 2013, a dispute erupted between Mitchell Campbell and his neighbors - Andrea Whitaker, Hannah Whitaker, and Justin Whitaker (“the Whitakers”). Docs. 29-8; 29-9; 29-10; see also doc. 29-6 at 12 (Beckman, Campbell's common law wife, stating, “I could hear yelling”). Apparently, the dispute began with Campbell drinking whiskey and shooting his gun against a “deer head” target Campbell had set up on his boat, located in his front yard to the right of his porch and facing away from the Whitakers' house. Doc. 29-6 at 9-12. At some point, Campbell allegedly drove his car to the Whitakers. See docs. 29-8 at 3-4; 29-9 at 3; 29-10 at 3. According to the Whitakers, Campbell was drunk, and had a gun and a knife. Docs. 29-8 at 3; 29-9 at 3; 29-10 at 3. Somehow, Campbell “threw” his keys and the Whitakers helped him find them. Docs. 29-8 at 3; 29-10 at 3. When Andrea Whitaker's boyfriend confronted Campbell “about driving in his state of intoxication, ” doc. 29-8 at 3, Campbell allegedly “became combative and began cursing, ” stating, “You don't have to drive on the fucking road then. I will do what I want. This isn't your fucking driveway.” Docs. 29-8 at 3-4; 29-10 at 3.

         Campbell then sped back to his property. Docs. 29-8 at 3-4; 29-10 at 3. Once Campbell returned to his mobile home, he began shouting threats at the Whitakers and shooting at their residence. See docs. 29-8 at 4 (“About five minutes later, we heard Campbell screaming and cursing at us from his porch. He then began firing a rifle . . . . He fired numerous shots in our direction . . . I heard Campbell yell, “I'm going to fucking kill all of you!”); 29-10 at 3 (“About five minutes later, we heard Campbell screaming and cursing at us from his porch. He yelled, ‘You faggot motherfuckers! I'm going to kill you!' He then began firing a rifle . . . . He fired numerous shots in our direction.”). At 8:57 p.m., Andrea Whitaker called 911, see docs. 29-9 at 3-4; 29-22 at 08.57.56.0p, and reported that Campbell was yelling and screaming, actively shooting a rifle at her residence, and verbally threating to kill her family. Docs. 29-1 at 17-18; 29-22 at 08.57.56.0p, 08.59.22.3p, 09.01.35.1p, 09.03.31.6p, 09.04.33.1p, 09.04.57.8p, 09.09.19.7p.

         The dispatcher who received the call relayed to the Sheriff's deputies that Campbell was “very intoxicated, ”[1] owned “several guns, ” and was actively shooting a gun at the Whitakers' residence - one bullet already purportedly having hit the Whitakers' home[2] - from his front yard and yelling threats that he was “coming to [the Whitakers'] residence and going to kill them.” Docs. 29-4 at 7; 29-6 at 22; 29-8 at 4; 29-9 at 2-4; 29-10 at 2-5; 29-22 at 08.59.22.3p, 09.01.35.1p, 09.04.57.8p, 09.09.19.7p. Deputy Hamilton, the first of the four officers who responded, heard a shot from Campbell's property travel through the trees and leaves near the Whitakers' house. Docs. 29-1 at 8, 11; 29-3 at 10; 34-5; 34-6; 34-7; 34-8. Based on this and other shots, Deputy Hamilton confirmed the accuracy of the Whitakers' reports to the dispatcher. Doc. 29-1 at 13. Also, two men hiding behind vehicles warned the four responding officers to take cover to avoid being shot by Campbell. See doc. 29-1 at 23 (Deputy Hamilton explained, “two male subjects . . . [were] hiding behind the vehicles and told us to take cover or we'd get shot”); see also doc. 29-10 at 2-5.

         The Whitakers relayed the evening's events to the deputies, including that Campbell had threatened to kill them and “had been shooting at their residence.” Doc. 29-2 at 5; see also docs. 29-8 at 4; 29-9 at 4; 29-10 at 4. While talking to the Whitakers, the deputies heard sporadic shots fired through the trees nearby that “sounded like bullets whizzing through the trees, ” and Campbell yelling and cursing. See docs. 29-1 at 13; 29-2 at 4-5; 29-4 at 3.

         Deputy Hamilton, as the ranking officer, led the deputies “under the cover of darkness” to Campbell's residence. Docs. 29-1 at 14-16; 19; 29-2 at 16; 29-4 at 3, 6. For their own safety, the deputies purposefully kept themselves hidden from view as they approached Campbell's home and took a path that caused them to lose sight of Campbell “at times.” Docs. 29-1 at 19; 29-2 at 6, 9. The deputies hoped to get close enough to Campbell to identify themselves as law enforcement before confronting and arresting him. As they neared the halfway point, Campbell - standing near the railing on his front porch, illuminated by porch light, holding a rifle, and intermittently “yell[ing] and scream[ing]” terms like “MF-ers, I'll kill you, ” - fired “eight or ten” successive shots with his rifle in the direction of the Whitakers' house. Docs. 29-1 at 22-24; 29-2 at 5, 7-8, 10; 29-6 at 14. The officers “hit the field [in response] and went up the weeds and briars and everything, chiggers, rats and snakes.” Doc. 29-4 at 3; see also doc. 29-4 at 5, 8. In Deputy Hamilton's opinion, Campbell “[a]ppeared to be belligerent.” Doc. 29-1 at 23. Campbell was also listening to loud music playing from a vehicle in his front yard. Docs. 29-2 at 8; 29-3 at 4.

         Before the officers reached Campbell's mobile home, Beckman brought Campbell his .22 caliber rifle to replace the shotgun and the .270 caliber gun Campbell had used up until that point. Doc. 29-6 at 12, 14. During the exchange, although Campbell was drinking whiskey, Beckman observed that Campbell was not slurring his speech or walking with the unsteady gait of an intoxicated person. Id. at 12.

         Once the officers made it up Campbell's driveway and along the side of his home, Deputy Hamilton observed Campbell positioned outside the gate to his porch, toward the top of the steps, and standing without a firearm. Docs. 29-1 at 19-20, 27-28; 29-2 at 15. As a result, Deputies Hamilton and Brown stepped around the left side of the house, making themselves visible to Campbell. Docs. 29-1 at 19; 29-2 at 14; 29-3 at 5; 29-4 at 3. Deputy Hamilton, who was dressed in full uniform, verbally identified himself by announcing “Sheriff's office” twice in succession while simultaneously pointing his gun at Campbell. Docs. 29-1 at 19; 29-2 at 14; 29-3 at 5; 29-4 at 3. Campbell did not verbally respond, but instead “turned and went back up the steps, stumbled a little, ” and made it through the gate onto the porch. Doc. 29-1 at 27-28, 31; 29-2 at 12-13.

         To stop Campbell from fleeing, Deputy Hamilton followed Campbell. Doc. 29-1 at 52. As Deputy Hamilton ascended the steps, he saw Campbell bend over and pick up his rifle, and spin back around, pointing the rifle at Deputies Hamilton and Brown. Id. at 31, 33, 52-54; doc. 29-2 at 13, 28. Deputy Hamilton “saw the barrel come up and then fall, ” and “thought [Campbell] was going to shoot [him].” Doc. 29-1 at 31. Although Deputy Hamilton was close enough to Campbell that “[he] could have grabbed ahold of him, ” doc. 29-1 at 34, and was within three feet according to the medical examiner, doc. 29-5 at 12, Deputy Hamilton fired three shots in succession at Campbell, hitting Campbell's arm, torso and chest. Docs. 29-1 at 29-36; 29-2 at 24-25; 29-3 at 4-5; 29-4 at 4, 10; 29-20 at 2-7. Deputy Hamilton then ascended the porch to assist Campbell, as Campbell fell into a seated position in a nearby chair. Docs. 29-1 at 40; 29-3 at 6. According to Deputy Jones, Campbell stated “something to the effect [of], You startled me, or You scared me, or Surprised me, or something like ...


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