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Davis v. Edwards

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

March 29, 2018

MARY LEE DAVIS, as administrator of the Estate of Fletcher Ray Stewart, deceased, Plaintiff,



         Deputy Bryan Edwards of the Tallapoosa County Sheriff's Office and Officers Rico Hardnett and Christopher Fenn of the City of Dadeville Police Department responded to a 911 call of a man with a gun. Upon arrival and after a brief foot chase, Edwards shot and killed the suspect, a intellectually disabled man named Fletcher Ray Stewart. Plaintiff Mary Lee Davis, as administrator of Stewart's estate, brought this action against Edwards, Hardnett, and Fenn under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case was referred to the Magistrate Judge for pretrial proceedings. All parties moved for summary judgment. The Magistrate recommended that Plaintiff's and Edwards' motions be denied, and that Hardnett and Fenn's motion be granted. See R & R, ECF No. 165. Plaintiff and Edwards objected to the denial of their motions for summary judgment. The Court reviews those objections de novo. For the reasons explained in the remainder of this Order, the Court (1) adopts the Magistrate's recommendation that Plaintiff's motions for summary judgment be denied; (2) adopts the Magistrate's recommendation that Hardnett and Fenn's motion for summary judgment be granted; and (3) rejects the Magistrate's recommendation that Edwards' motion for summary judgment be denied. Accordingly, summary judgment is granted in favor of Edwards, Hardnett, and Fenn as to all of Plaintiff's claims.


         When evaluating a law enforcement officer's motion for summary judgment based upon the defense of qualified immunity, the Court must accept the plaintiff's version of the facts and determine whether under those facts the officer's conduct violated plaintiff's clearly established constitutional rights. See Perez v. Suszczynski, 809 F.3d 1213, 1217 (11th Cir. 2016) (explaining that courts “must review the evidence in this manner ‘because the issues . . . concern not which facts the parties might be able to prove, but, rather, whether or not certain given facts showed a violation of clearly established law'” (quoting Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1190 (11th Cir. 2002))); see also Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194 (emphasizing that the plaintiff must show the violation of a clearly established constitutional right “under the plaintiff's version of the facts”).


         The Plaintiff's version of the facts is as follows:

         On February 11, 2015, Bennie Welch called 911 to report that his uncle, Fletcher Ray Stewart, had a gun and was “raisin' Cain” on Booger Hollow Road outside of Dadeville, Alabama. The 911 dispatcher dispatched Edwards to the scene and told him that Stewart was “waving” a gun in the road.[2] Hardnett and Fenn provided back-up. Edwards had encountered Stewart on prior occasions. Edwards arrived on the scene and saw Stewart walking alone in the road. No. bystanders were nearby, and Stewart was not brandishing a gun, threatening anyone, or otherwise acting suspiciously. But, when Stewart saw Edwards' police cruiser, he ran into the woods. Edwards, Hardnett, and Fenn pursued him with their weapons drawn. Edwards ordered Stewart to stop. Stewart eventually complied and held his hands out to his side. Edwards yelled at Stewart to tell him where the gun was. Stewart reached behind his back. Edwards yelled again for Stewart to show him his hands. According to Edwards and Hardnett, Stewart then took his right hand from behind his back and raised a gun. Edwards then fired six shots. Hardnett saw a pistol fly from Stewart's hands after the shooting started, but neither he nor Fenn saw a gun in Stewart's hands before the shooting.[3] Two shots hit Stewart, and Stewart died from his injuries. After the shooting, the officers discovered that Stewart had actually been holding a B.B. gun that resembled a real pistol.


         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated Stewart's Fourth Amendment rights by (1) conducting an unlawful investigatory stop under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968); (2) unlawfully seizing Stewart in violation of the Fourth Amendment “at the time that [Stewart] submitted to [Edwards'] orders or when defendant Edwards shot and killed Mr. Stewart”; and (3) using excessive force against Stewart in the shooting. See First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 34-45, ECF No. 27.[4]

         No one disputes that Defendants were exercising discretionary authority at the time of the alleged constitutional violations. Therefore, to overcome qualified immunity, Plaintiff's version of the facts must demonstrate a violation of Stewart's Fourth Amendment rights and that the rights were clearly established at the time of the encounter. See Perez, 809 F.3d at 1218. The Court analyzes Plaintiff's pre-shooting seizure claims and Plaintiff's excessive force claims separately.

         I. Plaintiff's Pre-Shooting Seizure Claims

         “[L]aw enforcement officers may seize a suspect for a brief, investigatory Terry stop where (1) the officers have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect was involved in, or is about to be involved in, criminal activity, and (2) the stop ‘was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.'” United States v. Jordan, 635 F.3d 1181, 1186 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 19-20). The reasonable suspicion standard “is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence.” Id. (quoting Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000)).

         Nonetheless, “the Fourth Amendment requires at least a minimal level of objective justification for making [a] stop.” Id. (quoting Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 123). Determining whether reasonable suspicion existed is a “totality of the circumstances” inquiry, and “defensive behavior toward police is a relevant factor in this inquiry.” Id. at 1186-87. When an officer asserts the defense of qualified immunity to a claim of an unconstitutional investigatory stop, “the issue is not whether reasonable suspicion existed in fact, but whether the officer had arguable reasonable suspicion to support an investigatory stop.” Clark v. City of Atlanta, 544 F. App'x 848, 853 (11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (emphasis added) (quoting Jackson v. Sauls, 206 F.3d 1156, 1165-66 (11th Cir. 2000)).

         Thus, the relevant inquiry is whether Edwards' seizure of Stewart prior to the shooting was supported by “arguable reasonable suspicion.” The Court finds that it was. Edwards was informed that Stewart, who he knew to be mentally unstable, was waving a gun on a public roadway. When Stewart saw Edwards, Stewart ran into the woods onto someone else's property. Under the totality of the circumstances, Edwards had an arguably reasonable basis to suspect that criminal activity may be afoot, which authorized him to stop and question Stewart.[5] Therefore, Edwards is entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's pre- shooting seizure claims. Similarly, and ...

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