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Robinson v. Rankin

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

September 26, 2018

CALVIN LEE ROBINSON as Administrator of THE ESTATE OF CALVIN LEE ROBINSON, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
L.B. RANKIN and TODD EASTERWOOD, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This 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.

         Mr. 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.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “The 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).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Calvin 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).

         That 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).

         That 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. 26).

         The 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).[1]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).

         The 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).[2] 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).

         Mr. 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).

         Meanwhile, 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 way:

[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. 4).[3]

         Officer 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, 46).

         After 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. 19-20).[4]

         Officer 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 intentions were.

(Doc. 42-2, p. 20).[5] 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 pp. 50-51).

         Officer 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).

         Mr. 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).

         Calvin 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).

         Mr. 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Section 1983 Excessive Force Claim

         Section 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).[6]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).

         Qualified 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 omitted).

         Qualified 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 ...


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