United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
CALVIN LEE ROBINSON as Administrator of THE ESTATE OF CALVIN LEE ROBINSON, JR., Plaintiff,
L.B. RANKIN and TODD EASTERWOOD, Defendants.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
case concerns the fatal shooting of plaintiff Calvin Lee
Robinson's son, Calvin Lee Robinson, Jr. In this opinion,
to distinguish between Mr. Robinson and his son, the Court
refers to the plaintiff as Mr. Robinson and to his son as
Calvin Jr. Calvin Jr. was killed when Hueytown Police Officer
Todd Easterwood fired into a car in which Calvin Jr. was
riding. When Officer Easterwood fired, he and his partner,
Lieutenant L.B. Rankin, were attempting to arrest Calvin Jr.
and the car's driver, Isaiah Brown, because the officers
believed they had just seen Mr. Brown hand illegal drugs to
the driver of another vehicle in a drive-by exchange. The
officers were correct; in the drive-by transaction, Mr. Brown
had received $20 in exchange for a small quantity of drugs.
Minutes later, Calvin Jr. was dead.
Robinson asserts a claim against Officer Easterwood under 42
U.S.C. § 1983. Mr. Robinson contends that by firing into
the vehicle, Officer Easterwood used excessive force to seize
Calvin Jr. in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (Doc. 37, p.
2). Mr. Robinson also asserts claims against Officer
Easterwood and Lieutenant Rankin under Ala. Code §
6-5-410, contending that both officers are liable for
punitive damages for wrongful death under Alabama law. (Doc.
37, p. 3). Officer Easterwood asserts a defense of qualified
immunity to the § 1983 claim, and both officers assert a
defense of state agent immunity to the state law claim. The
officers ask the Court to enter judgment in their favor on
these grounds. For the reasons discussed below, the Court
grants the officers' motion.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
court shall grant summary judgment 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.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To demonstrate that there is a genuine
dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary
judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must
cite “to particular parts of materials in the record,
including depositions, documents, electronically stored
information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations
(including those made for purposes of the motion only),
admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). The Court views the evidence in the
record in the light most favorable to Mr. Robinson because he
is the non-movant. See White v. Beltram Edge Tool Supply,
Inc., 789 F.3d 1188, 1191 (11th Cir. 2015); see also
Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, 707 F.3d 1244, 1252
(11th Cir. 2013) (“[W]hen conflicts arise between the
facts evidenced by the parties, [courts] must credit the
nonmoving party's version.”). “The court need
consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other
materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).
Robinson Jr. and Isaiah Brown were neighbors and long-time
friends. (Doc. 42-7, p. 12). On the morning of August 22,
2012, Mr. Brown went to Homewood to pay some parking tickets
and have his license reinstated. As he returned home, he saw
Calvin Jr. walking and offered him a ride. (Doc. 66-1, pp.
50, 76-77; see also Doc. 47-7, p. 7, ABI Brown
interview pp. 21-23). The two eventually visited the home of
Mr. Brown's sister. (Doc. 66-1, p. 51). While there, Mr.
Brown received a phone call from a woman who wanted to buy
illegal drugs. (Doc. 66-1, pp. 83-84; see also Doc.
47-7, p. 10, ABI Brown interview pp. 33-34). The buyer was
Lauren Foust, an acquaintance of Calvin Jr.'s. Calvin Jr.
had given Mr. Brown's cell phone number to Ms. Foust.
(Doc. 66-1, p. 59). Mr. Robinson and Calvin Jr. drove to an
undisclosed location to pick up the drugs and then drove to
meet Ms. Foust. (Doc. 66-1, pp. 90-91).
morning, Mr. Brown had a gun in his car. He usually stored
the gun in a cinder block at his house, but the night before,
he had put the gun in his car “[f]or protection,
because we had went out.” (Doc. 66-1, pp. 61-65, 73,
78, 80). The gun was between the front seats of Mr.
Brown's car somewhere near the center console. (Doc.
66-1, pp. 66-68, 71). Mr. Brown did not remove the gun from
his car when he returned home in the early hours of August
22, 2012, and he did not see the gun as he was driving his
car later that day. (Doc. 66-1, pp. 69-70, 72). Mr. Brown
stated that he forgot that the gun was in his car. (Doc.
66-1, p. 70).
same morning, Lieutenant Rankin and Officer Easterwood were
following up on drug-related complaints in the Brighton and
Bessemer areas. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 11-12). Although they were
officers in the Hueytown Police Department, they were
assigned to the United Narcotics Investigation Task Force
(“UNIT”). As members of UNIT, the officers
frequently patrolled for drug-related offenses outside of
Hueytown. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 8, 10; Doc. 49-4, p. 4). Lieutenant
Rankin and Officer Easterwood wore plain clothes and
patrolled in “an unmarked silver Chevrolet Malibu
equipped with blue lights and sirens.” (Doc. 42-2, p.
officers were patrolling along the Bessemer Super Highway
when they noticed a white Ford Explorer parked in the lot of
an abandoned store. (Doc. 42-2, p. 12; Doc. 47-2, p. 1). The
vehicle had a number of distinguishing characteristics - a
broken window and tow numbers on the rear window - that
allowed the officers to identify the Explorer as Lauren
Foust's vehicle. (Doc. 47-2, p. 1). The officers knew
that Ms. Foust was a drug-user. (Doc. 42-2, p. 12; Doc. 42-4,
pp. 7-9). The officers parked across the street and observed
Ms. Foust as she sat in her car making frequent phone calls
and glancing about. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 12-13).Based on Ms.
Foust's behavior, the officers' familiarity with her
drug use, and their assessment of the locale as a “high
drug area, ” the officers decided to follow Ms. Foust.
(Doc. 42-2, pp. 12-13; Doc. 42-4, pp. 8-9).
officers followed Ms. Foust along the Bessemer Super Highway
toward Brighton until she turned on Parker Springs Road into
a residential neighborhood. (Doc. 42-2, p. 14; Doc. 42-4, p.
9). The officers drove a block further and circled back
towards the intersection of Hardy Street and Parker Springs
Road to regain contact with Ms. Foust. (Doc. 42-2, p. 14;
Doc. 42-4, p. 9). As the officers turned back onto Parker
Springs Road, they saw Ms. Foust's vehicle stopped on
Hardy Street beside a black Mazda, Mr. Brown's vehicle.
(Doc. 42-4, pp. 9-10). The officers stopped just past the
intersection of Parker Springs Road and the Bessemer Super
Highway to observe the interaction between the occupants of
the two vehicles. (Doc. 42-2, p. 15; Doc. 42-4, p. 10).
Brown's car was “driver to driver” with Ms.
Foust's vehicle. (Doc. 66- 1, p. 91). Mr. Brown and Ms.
Foust made a hand-to-hand exchange and then drove off in
separate directions. The transaction took less than one
minute, and Ms. Foust paid $20 for the drugs that she bought.
After handing off the drugs, Mr. Brown and Calvin Jr. left
and drove towards the intersection of Hardy Street and Parker
Springs Road. (Doc. 66-1, pp. 50, 76-77, 85, 89-94; see
also Doc. 47-7, p. 3, ABI Brown interview p. 5; see
also Doc. 47-7, p. 11, ABI Brown interview pp. 39-40;
Doc. 42-2, p. 42). They slowed as they approached the
intersection. (Doc. 66-1, pp. 116, 118; Doc. 47-7, p. 13, ABI
Brown interview p. 48).
Lieutenant Rankin and Officer Easterwood were reacting to the
drug transaction. They were not close enough to the
transaction to confirm that drugs were involved, but based on
their training and experience, the officers believed that a
drug sale had occurred. (Doc. 42-2, p. 15; Doc. 42-4, p. 10).
Lieutenant Rankin also believed that he recognized the black
Mazda from another hand-to-hand drug sale that he had
witnessed one week earlier. (Doc. 42-4, pp. 7-8). Lieutenant
Rankin made a U-turn, drove the unmarked patrol car towards
the intersection, and attempted to block the Mazda as Mr.
Brown reached the stop sign at the intersection of Parker
Springs Road and Hardy Street. The officers emerged from
their car, drew their guns, and moved towards the Mazda.
(Doc. 42-2, pp. 15, 17, 27; Doc. 42-4, p. 15-16; Doc. 42-4,
p. 10; Doc. 47-7, p. 13, ABI Brown interview p. 48; Doc.
66-1, p. 95). Officer Easterwood was heading towards the
driver's side of the Mazda, and Lieutenant Rankin was
heading towards the passenger side. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 17-18,
44-45; Doc. 42-4, p. 17). Mr. Brown described the scene this
[Officers Easterwood and Rankin] are in regular clothes, both
of them jumped out with guns out. All I seen was two - it was
two white boys jumped out both of them got pistols out and
everything. The one on the driver's side was running to
my car. He went around to my car. First thing in my mind was,
“Oh, Lord, we are fixing to get robbed” or
something like that. Like I said, there - would be a gun in
the car. Next thing you know, he just -- he run on to the
side of the car, and my first thought was “go, go,
go.” Because I'm thinking, we was fixing to get
robbed and he's got a gun out here. Whatever he was going
to do, what's going to do. He up right now. He got the
up, period. So my first -- mind, is smashed the gas and go.
When I hit the gas, I'm trying to turn back to the left,
and like I said, they done block the left. My only way to go
back was to the left. I'm going to the left.
(Doc. 66-1, pp. 95-96). Mr. Brown explained that as he
accelerated and tried to turn left, Officer Easterwood began
shooting. Mr. Brown stated: “I'm trying to go left
real fast. When I'm doing that, I guess, he knew I was
going to go left real fast. He started shooting. That's
it.” (Doc. 66-1, p. 104; see also Doc. 66-1,
pp. 118- 20; Doc. 47-7, p. 2, ABI Brown interview p.
Easterwood testified that when Mr. Brown accelerated, he
(Officer Easterwood) perceived that the Mazda was
“headed toward me.” (Doc. 42-2, p. 17; see
also Doc. 42-2, pp. 18, 28). Lieutenant Rankin stated
that as the Mazda veered left, “it was really close
to” Officer Easterwood. (Doc. 42-4, p. 15). Officer
Easterwood took a step backwards and fired two rounds at the
oncoming vehicle to stop the car. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 18-19, 28,
the first two shots, the Mazda “slowed and veered to
the left.” Officer Easterwood perceived that the car
“was still approaching” him. (Doc. 42-2, p. 18).
Officer Easterwood testified that he fired another two shots
because the Mazda “was still driving towards me. They
were still trying to run over me and kill me.” (Doc.
42-2, p. 35). Officer Easterwood acknowledges that he was
trying to shoot Calvin Jr. (Doc. 42-2, pp.
Easterwood fired two final shots into the Mazda, bringing the
total number of shots to six. With respect to the two final
rounds, Officer Easterwood explained:
The car was still rolling and both of them were in there, and
at that point, I didn't know the extent of what all had -
you know, if either one of them were still - what their
(Doc. 42-2, p. 20). Lieutenant Rankin did not fire his weapon
during this encounter. (Doc. 42-4, p. 15). Mr. Brown stated
that the series of six shots “happened real quick.
Seconds.” (Doc. 66-1, p. 106; see also Doc.
66-1, p. 129). Lieutenant Rankin stated that everything
happened “within milliseconds.” (Doc. 42-4, p.
13; see also Doc. 42-4, pp. 17-18). In his statement
to the ABI investigators, Mr. Brown indicated that the
gunfire began almost as soon as the officers emerged from
their unmarked car. (Doc. 47-7, p. 14, ABI Brown interview
Easterwood testified that when the Mazda came to a stop, he
approached the passenger side of the car and saw that Calvin
Jr. “was kind of leaning to the right . . .”
(Doc. 42-2, p. 21). Officer Easterwood kept his gun trained
on Calvin Jr. Lieutenant Rankin reached the Mazda and removed
Mr. Brown from the car. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 21-22). Lieutenant
Rankin discovered that Mr. Brown suffered a gunshot wound to
his leg. (Doc. 66-1, pp. 78-79; see also Doc. 42-2,
pp. 21-22). Lieutenant Rankin wrapped a shirt around Mr.
Brown's leg as a tourniquet. (Doc. 42-4, pp. 18-19; Doc.
66-1, pp. 79-80).
Brown stated that as Lieutenant Rankin was applying pressure
to the bullet wound in his leg, he told Lieutenant Rankin
that there was a gun in the Mazda. (Doc. 47-7, p. 5, ABI
Brown interview p. 15). Lieutenant Rankin then retrieved the
gun from the Mazda, walked around the car to where Officer
Easterwood was standing, and placed the gun at Officer
Easterwood's feet. (Doc. 47-7, p. 6, ABI Brown interview
p. 18; see also Doc. 42-2, p. 22; Doc. 42-4, p. 19).
Jr. was alive when the vehicle stopped; his eyes were open,
and Officer Easterwood noticed that Calvin Jr. breathed with
difficulty. (Doc. 42-2, pp. 21-23; Doc. 42-4, p. 19). Officer
Easterwood testified that he saw no visible wound or
bleeding. (Doc. 42-2, p. 23). Calvin Jr. died before medical
personnel arrived on the scene. (Doc. 42-2, p. 23). Officer
Easterwood did nothing to assist Calvin Jr. (Doc. 42-2, p.
23). The cause of death was a single bullet that travelled
through Calvin Jr.'s aorta and both lungs. (Doc. 42-8,
pp. 2, 4).
Brown stated that there were a number of bystanders who
witnessed the shooting. An old couple sitting on their front
porch witnessed the shooting. (Doc. 66-1, p. 141).
“[T]here was a lady standing out in the street, ”
and another man standing at the corner. (Doc. 66-1, p.
141-42). Officer Easterwood testified that the events
surrounding Calvin Jr.'s death occurred in a residential
neighborhood, but he does not recall seeing anyone on the
street before he began shooting. (Doc. 42-2, p. 20).
Section 1983 Excessive Force Claim
1983 affords relief when a state actor deprives an individual
of “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the
Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mr.
Robinson contends that when Officer Easterwood shot and
killed Calvin Jr., Officer Easterwood violated Calvin
Jr.'s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive
force. See U.S. Const. Amend. IV; (Doc. 56, pp.
22-32).Officer Easterwood argues that the force he
used was proportional to the threat that he reasonably
perceived, so that he is immune from liability under §
1983. (Doc. 56, pp. 22-32).
immunity is an affirmative defense, the availability of which
is a “question of law for the court to
determine.” Stone v. Peacock, 968 F.2d 1163,
1165 (11th Cir. 1992) (quoting Ansley v. Heinrich,
925 F.2d 1339, 1341 (11th Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation
marks omitted). “Qualified immunity protects police
officers from suit in their individual capacities for
discretionary actions performed in the course of their
duties.” Carter v. Butts Cty., 821 F.3d 1310,
1318 (11th Cir. 2016). “‘Qualified immunity
offers complete protection for government officials sued in
their individual capacities if their conduct does not violate
clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of
which a reasonable person would have known.'”
Brown v. City of Huntsville, Ala., 608 F.3d 724, 733
(11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Vinyard v. Wilson, 311
F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002)) (internal quotation marks
immunity allows government officials, including police
officers, “‘to carry out their discretionary
duties without the fear of personal liability or harassing
litigation, protecting from suit all but the plainly
incompetent or one who is knowingly violating the federal
law.'” Brown, 608 F.3d at 733 (quoting
Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir.
2002)). “Qualified immunity ‘does not offer
protection if an official knew or reasonably should have
known that the action he took within his sphere of official
responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the
[plaintiff].'” Carter, 821 F.3d ...