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Eleventh Circuit rules that police offers were entitled to qualified immunity from claims of false arrest and use of excessive force in traffic stop civil rights case

On June 4, 2018, in Manners v. Cannella, No. 17-10088, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment to the defendant police officers in a civil rights case in which the African-American plaintiff alleged that the officers had made a false arrest and used excessive force during a traffic stop.

Based on the evidence presented to the Eleventh Circuit, the plaintiff’s vehicle was stopped after he had allegedly been seen (in the rear view window of the officer’s vehicle) not completely stopping at a stop sign. The plaintiff claimed he had in fact come to a complete stop. Both sides agreed that the plaintiff had continued driving after seeing the police car behind him with its lights and siren activated. The plaintiff explained that he did not initially slow down because he is afraid of police officers and continued driving until he reached a well-lit gas station with video surveillance, which was about three blocks away. After he stopped, he exited the vehicle. One of the defendants testified that he repeatedly ordered the plaintiff to get back in his car (a point disputed by the plaintiff) and that when he failed to do so, he was told he was placed under arrest. After the officer tried to handcuff him, an altercation allegedly ensured in which the plaintiff was thrown to the ground and punched in the head and then repeatedly tased by multiple officers.

The trial court granted the summary judgment after concluding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they were acting within the course and scope of their duties and violated no clearly established constitutional right. The qualified immunity inquiry articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court provides immunity for law enforcement officers “unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.’” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (quoting Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012)). The Eleventh Circuit opined that each of the plaintiff’s claims was dependent on whether there was probable cause for his arrest, and that to establish probable cause, an arrest must be “objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances,” requiring “only a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity.” Moreover, for purposes of granting qualified immunity to law enforcement officers, it is enough that there is “arguable probable cause” for a warrantless custodial arrest, meaning that reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the defendant-officers could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest.

The Eleventh Circuit found that the alleged running of the stop sign did not provide a basis for summary judgment because the facts were disputed, even though the defendants might well be entitled at trial to the benefit of qualified immunity based on the jury’s findings of fact. However, the Eleventh Circuit considered the alleged flight to elude a police officer (a slow speed flight covering 176 feet to the gas station) was a proper basis for a finding of probable cause and dismissal on qualified immunity grounds. In addition, the Court concluded that summary judgment was appropriate for the excessive force claim because a reasonable officer on the scene could have believed that the plaintiff posed a threat to the arresting officer.