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Eleventh Circuit reverses summary judgment for defendant police officers in civil right excessive force case; rules that tasing a cooperative, nonthreatening misdemeanant in the back is not is an appropriate means of effecting an arrest

On October 20, 2020, in Stryker v. City of Homewood et al., No. 19-10495, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court order granting the defendants summary judgment, based on qualified immunity, in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights case.  The plaintiff alleged that the defendant police officers used excessive force in tasing and beating him during a routine motor vehicle accident investigation.  On appeal of the summary judgment, the plaintiff argued that the district court erred because it disregarded his evidence and resolved contested issues of fact against him to grant the defendants qualified immunity.  Quoting from Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989) (citation omitted),the Eleventh Circuit observed that when evaluating the constitutionality of an arresting officer’s use of force, the court is required to balance “the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests” against the government’s interest in safely apprehending the suspect, and that this is a necessarily fact-intensive inquiry that requires the Court to consider (1) “the severity of the crime at issue,” (2) “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others,” and (3) “whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”  The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the officer who initially tased the plaintiff acted unreasonably under the Graham factors because he shot the plaintiff in the back with the taser and kicked him once the plaintiff fell to the ground without ever using any lessor force or even informing the plaintiff that that he was under arrest. The Eleventh Circuit noted that that the underlying crime which allegedly justified the arrest, a misdemeanor municipal ordinance violation for failing to comply – “cannot fairly be described as ‘severe’”.  The Court additionally quoted from Fils v. City of Aventura, 647 F.3d 1272, 1289 (11th Cir. 2011): “non-violent suspects, accused of minor crimes, who have not resisted arrest . . . are victims of constitutional abuse when police used extreme force to subdue them.” The Court distinguished Draper v. Reynolds, 369 F.3d 1270, 1278 (11th Cir. 2004), in which the Eleventh Circuit held that excessive force was not used by officers in tasing a “hostile, belligerent, and uncooperative” motorist who “used profanity, moved around and paced in agitation, and repeatedly yelled” at an officer on the side of a busy highway.  The Court stated that ‘n]othing in Draper supports the view that tasing a cooperative, nonthreatening misdemeanant in the back is an appropriate means of effecting an arrest.”

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