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Wilson v. Ferguson

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

March 21, 2019

JERRY WILSON, Plaintiff,



         This is 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.[1] 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.


         Jerry 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 question jurisdiction.


         a. 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).

         Summary 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.

         Finally, 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)).

         b. Qualified Immunity

          “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 (2001).

         c. False Arrest/Detention

          “[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.

         Ferguson contends his interaction with Wilson did not constitute an arrest;[2] instead he argues it amounted to a Terry-style[3] 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).

         d. Excessive Force

         “Fourth 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).

         Any use 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).

         III. FACTS [4]

         The 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. (Id./Depo. 56:14-16).

         After 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).[5] Before the defendants approached, Wilson did not yell at them. (Id. at 11/Depo. 59:11-15).

         Ferguson 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.

         The 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 ...

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