United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
K. DUBOSE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
a Section 1983 action involving two claims: false arrest and
excessive force. The defendants, all of whom were law
enforcement officials at the time of their encounter with
Plaintiff Jerry Wilson, have moved for summary judgment on
the basis of qualified immunity. As set out more fully below,
Deputies Matthew Till and Lance Jones' motion for summary
judgment is due to be denied and Officer John Ferguson's
motion is due to be granted in part and denied in part.
Wilson initiated a two-count complaint in the Circuit Court
of Wilcox County, Alabama on March 27, 2018 against City of
Camden Officer John Ferguson, Wilcox County Sheriff's
Deputy Lance Jones and Wilcox County Sheriff's Deputy
Matthew Till. (Doc. 1-1). Wilson's complaint was brought
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the
Fourth Amendment. Count I alleges Ferguson used excessive
force. Count II alleges a false arrest and detention claim
against all defendants. (Id. at 7). Defendants
removed this case to this Court on the basis of federal
OVERVIEW OF THE LAW
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). Defendants, as the parties seeking
summary judgment, bear the initial responsibility of
informing the district court of the basis for their 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. Clark v.
Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir.
1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S.
317, 323 (1986)). If the nonmoving party fails to make a
sufficient showing on an essential element of his case with
respect to which he has the burden of proof-that a genuine
dispute of material fact exists-the moving party is entitled
to summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.
“In reviewing whether the nonmoving party has met its
burden, the court must stop short of weighing the evidence
and making credibility determinations of the truth of the
matter…the evidence of the non-movant is to be
believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in
his favor.” Tipton v. Bergrohr GMBH-Siegen,
965 F.2d 994, 998-999 (11th Cir. 1992) (internal citations
and quotations omitted).
judgment may nonetheless be appropriate in certain scenarios
even with conflicting versions of events. The Supreme Court
has instructed that “When opposing parties tell two
different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by
the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a
court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes
of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott
v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). When the
non-movant's assertion is “so utterly
discredited” by the record, no “genuine”
dispute of material fact exists sufficient to prompt an
inference on behalf of the non-movant. Id. at 381.
when qualified immunity is raised as a reason justifying
summary judgment, the Eleventh Circuit has stated district
courts should “approach the facts from the
plaintiff's perspective because ‘[t]he issues . . .
here 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.'”
McCullough v. Antolini, 559 F.3d 1201, 1202 (11th
Cir. 2009) (quoting Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188,
1190 (11th Cir. 2002)).
“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.'” Vinyard v.
Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting
Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). If
the defendants demonstrate that they acted within the scope
of their professional authority when the allegedly wrongful
actions occurred, “the burden shifts to the plaintiff
to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.”
Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. To assess entitlement to
qualified immunity, a court must determine: (1) whether the
facts, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,
show that the defendants' conduct violated the
plaintiff's constitutional rights; and (2) whether the
right at issue was clearly established at the time of the
constitutional violation. Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818.
It is within a court's discretion “which of the two
prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed
first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at
hand.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236
“[A]n arrest without probable cause to believe a crime
had been committed violate[s] the Fourth Amendment.”
Von Stein v. Brescher, 904 F.2d 572, 579 (11th Cir.
1990). “But where probable cause supports an arrest, it
acts as ‘an absolute bar to a section 1983 action for
false arrest.'” Carter v. Butts Cty., Ga.,
821 F.3d 1310, 1319 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Kingsland
v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1226 (11th Cir. 2004)).
“[A]rguable probable cause is all that is needed to
establish the qualified immunity defense when probable cause
is an essential element of the constitutional claim.”
Pruitt v. Gillespie, 625 Fed.Appx. 374, 376 (11th
Cir. 2015) (unpublished). Arguable probable cause exists
where reasonable officers in the same circumstances and with
the same knowledge as the officer could have believed that
probable cause existed. Brown v. City of Huntsville,
Ala., 608 F.3d 724, 734 (11th Cir. 2010). It
“depends on the elements of the alleged crime and the
operative fact pattern. Showing arguable probable cause does
not, however, require proving every element of a
crime.” Id. at 735 (internal citations
omitted). “[W]hat counts for qualified immunity
purposes relating to probable cause to arrest is the
information known to the defendant officers or officials at
the time of their conduct, not the facts known to the
plaintiff then or those known to a court later.”
Jones v. Cannon, 174 F.3d 1271, 1283 (11th Cir.
1999). “The standard is an objective one and does not
include an inquiry in to the officer's subjective intent
or beliefs.” Brown, 608 F.3d at 735.
contends his interaction with Wilson did not constitute an
arrest; instead he argues it amounted to a
Terry-style investigatory stop or detention. (Doc. 16
at 10). This distinction is important because the standard
required to receive qualified immunity arising from a
Terry stop is significantly less burdensome than
when the interaction amounts to an arrest. “[A]n
officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a
brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable,
articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.”
Jackson v. Sauls, 206 F.3d 1156, 1165 (11th Cir.
2000) (quoting Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119,
123 (2000)). “A law enforcement official who reasonably
but mistakenly concludes that reasonable suspicion is present
is still entitled to qualified immunity. When an officer
asserts qualified immunity, the issue is not whether
reasonable suspicion existed in fact, but whether the officer
had ‘arguable' reasonable suspicion to support an
investigatory stop.” Jackson, 206 F.3d at
1165-66. “In undertaking the arguable reasonable
suspicion inquiry, this [c]ourt must examine the totality of
the circumstances to determine whether an officer had a
‘particularized and objective' basis to support his
suspicion.” Whittier v. Kobayashi, 581 F.3d
1304, 1309 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Brent v. Ashley,
247 F.3d 1294, 1303 (11th Cir. 2001)) (alteration supplied).
Amendment jurisprudence has long recognized that the right to
make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with
it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or
threat thereof to effect it.” Graham v.
Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). “While some
force in effecting an arrest is thus allowed,
‘[d]etermining whether the force used to effect a
particular seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment
requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the
intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests
against the countervailing governmental interests at
stake.'” Vinyard, 311 F.3d at 1347
(quoting Lee, 284 F.3d at 1197).
of force must be reasonable. Graham, 490 at 395.
“[C]laims that law enforcement officers have used
excessive force-deadly or not-in the course of an arrest,
investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' of a free
citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its
‘reasonableness' standard[.]” Id.
“[T]he ‘reasonableness' inquiry in an
excessive force case is an objective one: the question is
whether the officers' actions are ‘objectively
reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances
confronting them[.]” Graham, 490 U.S. at 397.
The reasonableness of a particular use of force is
“judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on
the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of
hindsight.” Id. at 396. The reasonableness
test is not mechanically applied, but instead depends on the
facts and circumstances of each particular case. The Eleventh
Circuit's analysis of this question includes the
following Graham factors: (1) the severity of the
crime; (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to
the safety of the officers or others; and (3) whether the
suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade
arrest by flight. See, e.g.,
Brown, 608 F.3d at 738 (citing the Graham
factors). Other factors relevant to the resolution include
“the need for the application of force, the
relationship between the need and the amount of force used,
and the extent of the injury inflicted.” Saunders
v. Duke, 766 F.3d 1262, 1267 (11th Cir. 2014) (citation
omitted, alteration accepted).
facts, viewed most favorable to Wilson, reveal the following:
Late one night in March 2016, Wilson and his wife, Destine,
went to Travis' General Store in Camden, Alabama to
purchase food for their return trip to Huntsville, Alabama.
(Doc. 16-1 at 8/Depo. 47:8-9). Large crowds often gathered at
Travis', and a number of crimes had occurred on the
property. (Doc. 20-1 at ¶ 7). That night, several law
enforcement vehicles surrounded the store, with lights
illuminated. (Id.). Wilson, who is paralyzed from
his waist down, sat in the back seat of a Tahoe SUV, on its
driver's side. (Doc. 16-1 at 10/Depo. 56:8-9). He sat in
the backseat because he was going to stretch out on the ride
home. (Id./Depo. 56:11-13). Wilson's wheelchair
was stored in the cargo space of the Tahoe.
parking, Destine got out of the Tahoe and went into the
store. It was while she was in the store that the defendants
approached Wilson's vehicle. (Id./Depo.
54:13-16). The first defendant who spoke to Wilson was
Ferguson. (Id. at 11/Depo. 57:1-3). According to
Wilson's version of the events, which the Court must
accept, Wilson did not have any interaction with the officers
prior to Ferguson opening the door. (Id./Depo.
57:22-58:1). According to Wilson, he neither “smart[ed]
off” to the officers nor “jaw[ed] back and forth
with them[.]” (Id. at 12/Depo.
62:11-15). Before the defendants approached, Wilson
did not yell at them. (Id. at 11/Depo. 59:11-15).
spoke to Wilson first. Ferguson approached the door and asked
for Wilson's name and social security number.
(Id./Depo. 57:4-7). He also inquired as to whether
Wilson possessed any drugs or weapons. (Id./Depo.
57:8-10). Wilson answered Ferguson's questions.
Thereafter, Ferguson opened the door. (Id./Depo.
57:4-15). After a back and forth, Ferguson said “boy,
get out of the truck.” (Id./Depo. 60:18).
Because Wilson is paralyzed, he could not exit without
falling to the ground. (Id. at 12/Depo. 61:2-3). As
a result, he “was just holding [himself]
tightly.” (Id./Depo. 61:3-4). Ferguson placed
a handcuff on Wilson's left wrist. (Id./Depo.
61:7-8). Later, Wilson gave Ferguson his right hand and
Ferguson placed the other cuff around it. (Doc. 16-3 at
8/Depo. 31:00-32:1). Wilson told Ferguson that he needed his
chair out of the back of the Tahoe.
handcuffs were removed to allow Wilson to place himself in
his wheelchair. (Doc. 16-1 at 12/Depo. 62:18-19). Afterwards,
Wilson “push[ed] [himself]” to the police
cruiser. (Id./Depo. 62:23). On Wilson's way to
Jones' police cruiser, according to Wilson, Jones was
behind him with Jones' hand on Wilson's wheelchair.
(Id./Depo. 63:20-22). According to Wilson, somebody
(presumably Jones) pushed his wheelchair over. In the
security video, his wheelchair can be seen toppling
backwards. After helping Wilson upright his wheelchair, Jones
placed Wilson in his police cruiser with handcuffs.
(Id. at 13/Depo. 69:2-4). Wilson rode in Jones'
car to the detention center in Camden. (Id./Depo.
69:15-16). But instead of being taken into the jail to be
booked, Jones dropped Wilson off in the parking lot. Destine,
who drove separately, picked up ...