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Appeals Court Favors Videos To Resolve “Disputes Of Fact”

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In a recent decision, federal appellate justices gave special weight to dash-cam recordings in determining whether officers accused of excessive force are entitled to immunity from a civil rights lawsuit.

The case involved two Michigan sheriff’s deputies who were denied a summary judgment exonerating them of wrongdoing by a district court judge who ruled that conflicting accounts of their force encounter should be evaluated in a trial. The deputies were appealing that decision.

Ordinarily, the 6th circuit Court of Appeals explained in ruling for the officers last month [July 2015], appellate justices are required by legal protocol to view disputed facts in a summary judgment appeal “in the light most favorable to the plaintiff” in determining whether a lawsuit should be dismissed.

But this case had what the Court termed “an added wrinkle”: two dash-cam videos had captured “all the genuinely disputed facts” of the actions in question, the Court noted. In such circumstances, the majority opinion said, “we view the facts in the light depicted by the videotape[s]” in deciding whether the suit should proceed to trial.

The action depicted supported the deputies’ version of events, the Court ruled, thus reversing the district judge’s decision.

“This case should serve as an important reminder to officers and their attorneys that video recordings need to be carefully scrutinized,” observes Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute.

“In this case, the decisive weight assigned to video worked in the officers’ favor. But video evidence is not always so clarifying as it appears to be. With any recording, crucial subtleties need to be clearly identified and properly interpreted. Automatically accepting what video seems to show will not always be reliable.”

The decision in this case, Rudlaff v. Gillispie, can be accessed in full, free of charge, by clicking here.

TENSE STOP IN THE WOODS

The litigation, alleging that the deputies violated a suspect’s civil rights with the force they used to restrain him during a roadside encounter, grew from a winter afternoon traffic stop near the hamlet of Wellston, a popular fishing destination surrounded by national forest in northern Michigan. The suspect, driving on a suspended license, had a “history of drunk driving and getting physical with police officers after being stopped,” according to the Court’s written opinion.

The deputies claimed that during a 26-second encounter, the suspect exited his truck “voluntarily,” and then proved true to his past–cursing, puffing out his chest, acting “highly agitated,” defying instructions, and twice taking a swing at the officers as they tried to handcuff him. After one deputy attempted to subdue him with a knee strike (“ineffective”), the other brought him “immediately” to the ground with a single CEW discharge in dart mode. No further force was used once he submitted to handcuffing.

A lawsuit alleging that the suspect’s constitutional rights were violated contended that both the knee strike and the CEW shot were excessive force. The suspect claimed he was “jerked out of the truck” and that he was attempting to comply with commands when the CEW was deployed against him “without warning.”

“VISIBLE FICTION”

The conflicting accounts (“disputed issues of material fact”) warranted a trial, the district judge felt. But the appellate court majority ruled that the suspect’s story “amounts to a ‘visible fiction’ in light of the dash-cam videos” from the deputies’ respective patrol cars. That dual footage “strongly indicated his intentions were not innocent and compliant, but defiant and hostile,” states the Court’s written opinion.

“[It’s] plain and simple: When a person resists arrest–say, by swinging his arms in the officer’s direction, balling up, and refusing to comply with verbal commands–the officers can use the amount of force necessary to ensure submission,” Circuit Judge David McKeague wrote. “A jury has nothing left to decide.”

SOME DOUBT

One member of the three-judge appellate panel thought the videotapes were less conclusive. She argued, for example, that a jury might reasonably conclude that “rather than full-on ‘swinging’ ” at deputies, the suspect’s arm movements represented his simply jerking away from the officers. In short, she felt that the alleged resistance the suspect displayed was too trivial to warrant use of a CEW.

Nonetheless, given guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court, she agreed with the other justices that the officers still were entitled to qualified immunity from litigation and to a summary judgment in their favor.

More than five years after the incident occurred, the deputies’ actions were at last sustained.

(An interesting side note: The record in this case offers an example of how an officer’s memory can be incomplete after a high-intensity event. The deputy who delivered the CEW discharge had no recollection of having issued a verbal warning before firing, although video clearly recorded him telling the suspect to “relax, or else you’re going to get tasered.”)

Our thanks to Michael Brave, national/international litigation counsel for TASER International, Inc., and member/manager of LAAW International LLC, for alerting us to this decision.

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