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Eleventh Circuit finds police officers were entitled to qualified immunity in civil rights lawsuit brought by plaintiff claiming excessive force was used in his arrest for murder

On June 14, 2019, in Hinson v. Bias, et al. No. 16-14112, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a district court’s order denying the defendant police officers’ motion for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights case. The plaintiff alleged that the officers used excessive force in arresting him in a parking garage on suspicion of having murdered a fellow bar patron with a pocketknife.  The plaintiff claimed he remembered nothing about his arrest and relied on the evidence of his injuries and the arrest video.  The district court judge apparently believed that the video was sufficient to create a material issue of disputed fact that disqualified the officers for qualified immunity.  Although the officers’ version of events relied in large part on verbal commands they allegedly made to the plaintiff, which they alleged were ignored by him, the video did not include audio.  As a result, the Eleventh Circuit analyzed whether the gaps in activity on the video fit with the sequence of commands alleged to have been made by the officers.  The Eleventh Circuit noted that while the invocation of qualified immunity requires a public official to first demonstrate that he or she was acting within the scope of his or her discretionary authority, citing Maddox v. Stephens, 727 F.3d 1109, 1120 (11th Cir. 2013), the officers readily satisfied this requirements since they effecting an otherwise lawful arrest. This shifted the burden to the plaintiff to demonstrate that qualified immunity is inappropriate. The Court opined that to carry his burden the plaintiff had to show that when viewed in the light most favorable to him, the facts demonstrated (1) that the defendant officers violated his constitutional right and (2) that that right was “clearly established in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition at the time of defendant officers’ actions, citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001), overruled in part on other grounds. Quoting from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986), the Eleventh Circuit noted that while summary judgment should be granted only if the evidence of record yields no genuine dispute of material fact, a “mere scintilla of evidence” cannot suffice to create a genuine issue of material fact. The nonmoving party must present enough “concrete” and “affirmative” evidence to allow a jury to reasonably find in its favor. The Court concluded that the officers’ action were “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances confronting the officers, noting that the crime was extremely serious, there were corroborating facts inculpating the plaintiff (blood on his shirt and hands), he matched the physical description of the perpetrator, they had every reason to believe he was still armed and was at the wheel of a functioning vehicle and consequently posed a substantial and immediate threat to their safety and others, and he would not obey instructions.