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Stephens v. City of Tarrant

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

May 31, 2018

MAJOR STEPHENS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF TARRANT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This § 1983 matter is before the court on Plaintiff Major Stephens's “Motion For Summary Judgment Against Defendant Justin Willis” (doc. 56) and the Defendants' “Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 55). The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment as to Defendant Justin Willis's liability. The other defendants-the City of Tarrant, Chief of Police Dennis Reno, and Lieutenant Larry Rice (the “supervisory defendants”)-also move for summary judgment in their favor on their liability. The court will DENY the cross motions for summary judgment as to Officer Willis's liability. The court will GRANT the supervisory defendants' motion for summary judgment in their favor.

         Mr. Stephens also brings state-law assault and battery claims against Officer Willis, but concedes them and consents to their dismissal. Accordingly, the court will DISMISS Mr. Stephens's assault and battery claims against Officer Willis WITH PREJUDICE.

         The court additionally has before it Mr. Stephens's “Motion to Strike” (doc. 60) the Defendants' brief in support of their motion for summary judgment. The court will DENY Mr. Stephens's “Motion to Strike.”

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is an integral part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary judgment allows a trial court to decide cases when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. When a district court reviews a motion for summary judgment, it must determine two things: (1) whether any genuine issues of material fact exist; and if not, (2) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         The moving party “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56). The moving party can meet this burden by offering evidence showing no dispute of material fact or by showing that the non-moving party's evidence fails to prove an essential element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-23.

         Once the moving party meets its burden of showing the district court that no genuine issues of material fact exist, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party “to demonstrate that there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). In reviewing the evidence submitted, the court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” to determine whether the nonmoving party presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986); Cottle v. Storer Commc'n, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Furthermore, all evidence and inferences drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999).

         FACTS

         A. Mr. Stephens's Arrest

         On May 30, 2015, Tarrant police officers, including Defendant Justin Willis, responded to a call from Birmingham police requesting assistance in recovering a carjacked vehicle. Although Officer Willis maintains that dispatch told him the suspect in the carjacking was armed, the dispatch audio recording indicates only that dispatch told Officer Willis that the situation involved a possible carjacking. A written account of the dispatch call log states that a firearm was “involved.” (Doc. 65-5 at 2).

         Officer Willis arrived at an apartment complex and was the first police officer on the scene; Mr. Stephens had arrived earlier. Upon arriving, Officer Willis saw a car and verified that it was the same car that had been reported stolen. Officer Willis saw Mr. Stephens bending over inside the front driver's side of the car. Mr. Stephens then “pop[ped] out of” the car.

         Mr. Stephens had “objects” in his hand, but dropped them and started walking away from the car. Officer Willis reported to dispatch his belief that Mr. Stephens intended to run.

         Officer Willis exited his car and commanded Mr. Stephens to stop. Mr. Stephens heard a few officers tell him to put his hands up. (Doc. 55-4 at 9). Mr. Stephens did not comply with any of these requests, choosing to run instead. Officer Willis followed in pursuit.

         During that foot chase, another officer tried to block Mr. Stephens's path with his patrol car, but the officer failed to do so successfully. Although the car hit Mr. Stephens in the leg, Mr. Stephens went around or over the car. (Doc. 55-2 at 89). The other officer also briefly joined in Officer Willis's pursuit of Mr. Stephens, but got back into his car. (Id. at 89-90. 101-102). Officer Willis estimated that he was more than 30 feet behind Mr. Stephens during most of the chase. (Id. at 108).

         Mr. Stephens continued to run, crossing a street and jumping a fence, then going around a house and coming back around the front side. The parties' versions of the events after Mr. Stephens came back around the front side of the house differ significantly.

         1. Officer Willis's Version

         Officer Willis says that he commanded Mr. Stephens to stop and that Mr. Stephens did so and turned to face him. Officer Willis could not see Mr. Stephens's hands. Officer Willis surmised that he would have seen Mr. Stephens's hands if Mr. Stephens had positioned them wide of or away from his body. (Doc. 55-2 at 113). Officer Willis thus perceived Mr. Stephens's turn to be “aggressive” because he could not see Mr. Stephens's hands. (Id. at 109). To Officer Willis, Mr. Stephens did not look like he was giving up-he did not put his hands up in the air, a “common” response in this situation. (Id. at 111).

         In a split-second and “out of instinct, ” Officer Willis fired his Taser at Mr. Stephens from approximately 15 to 20 feet away. Officer Willis aimed the Taser at Mr. Stephens's belt line. Upon being hit by the Taser, Mr. Stephens fell to his stomach. Officer Willis closed the distance between them and handcuffed Mr. Stephens. After Officer Willis patted down Mr. Stephens for weapons, he discovered that one of the Taser's prongs hit Mr. Stephens in the eye. Officer Willis immediately called for medical attention.

         2. Mr. Stephens's Version

         Mr. Stephens describes the events differently. After he returned to the front side of the house, Mr. Stephens “lost all wind” and “collapsed.” (Doc. 55-4 at 9). Mr. Stephens then told Officer Willis three times that he was “down” and that he gave up. (Id. at 9-10). Mr. Stephens fell with his stomach on the ground, but with his head turned in the direction of Officer Willis as he was approaching. Officer Willis walked toward him, crouched down with his Taser. Officer Willis then fired his Taser from a distance of eight feet, hitting Mr. Stephens in the eye.

         3.Aftermath

         The parties agree about the consequences of the parties' actions on May 30, 2015. Mr. Stephens lost use of his eye. Law enforcement officers discovered a gun in the side floorboard of the stolen car. Mr. Stephens plead guilty to “First Degree ...


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