A federal appellate court has ruled that a sheriff’s deputy was justified in shooting dead the driver of a car heading toward him as a weapon, even though the deputy deliberately stepped into the vehicle’s path and stayed there when he had the opportunity to move aside.
The 10th circuit Court of Appeals said the deputy’s actions were reasonable and ordered a lower court to grant him qualified immunity from a claim that he violated the driver’s constitutional rights by using excessive force.
The fact that the deputy placed himself in jeopardy was immaterial, the court declared, and did not constitute reckless behavior.
PURSUIT FOR PEEING
The case began on an autumn Friday evening when a deputy on patrol in Box Elder County, UT, made contact with a middle-aged man he saw urinating on the shoulder of a rural state highway. The man smelled of alcohol and the deputy suspected intoxication. While the officer was running a warrants check, the suspect suddenly rabbited in his VW Jetta. A brief, mostly low-speed pursuit ensued, ending in a cul-de-sac in a residential area of the hamlet of Corinne.
The deputy angled his marked patrol truck across the road to discourage escape, but the suspect seemed determined to maneuver around it. To prevent him from advancing, the court decision says, the deputy “exited his truck, drew his service weapon, and stepped in front” of the car that was slowly coming toward him.
As the Jetta continued to creep forward, the bumper hit the deputy’s legs a few times. The deputy backpedaled, shouting “Get out of the car” twice and “Stop!” six times. When the suspect “offered no indication” of obeying and the car was “just inches away,” the deputy fired three rounds through the windshield, striking the driver twice in the chest. The Jetta crashed into a drainage ditch. The driver, who had an “extensive criminal history,” according to news reports, died at the scene.
Dash-cam footage accessible by clicking here as part of a newscast shows the deputy attempting to retreat. The actual shooting occurred out of camera frame, but the county attorney in deciding the shooting was justified claimed the suspect was revving his engine when the deputy fired.
CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION?
The suspect’s mother filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of his estate, alleging, among other things, that the deputy, operating without backup, had “voluntarily and intentionally positioned himself in front of [the suspect’s] slow-moving vehicle” and was not in “threat of serious physical harm.”
Thus his use of deadly force was an excessive reaction—“negligent, reckless, and/or willful misconduct”—that violated the dead man’s constitutional right to be free of unlawful seizure.
A District Court judge dismissed the deputy’s agency and sheriff from the suit but held in the plaintiff’s favor that given the circumstances the deputy was not entitled to a summary judgment based on qualified immunity.
The court explained that a jury could find that if the deputy “could have reasonably moved out of the way, his decision to step in front of the car and remain there when it became apparent [the suspect] was not going to stop [was] reckless and…unnecessarily created the need to use deadly force.”
On the deputy’s appeal, however, a three-judge panel of the appellate court ruled earlier this year that this was a reversible error, and thereby absolved the deputy of any liability.
The appellate justices explained their reversal in a 27-page decision written by Judge Jerome Holmes.
The crux in determining whether the deputy acted reasonably in using deadly force lies with whether the suspect “posed an immediate threat to [the deputy’s] safety,” Holmes wrote. From viewing the available video, the panel felt the threat was “readily apparent.”
“Despite [the deputy’s] orders to stop,” the suspect “continued to drive his Volkswagen forward as [the deputy] stepped backwards; his vehicle’s bumper was just inches away….” A reasonable officer in the deputy’s position “would have feared for his life,” Holmes wrote, and the deputy “had mere seconds to act… Even if he was mistaken as to the imminence of the threat,” his actions could still be considered reasonable under the circumstances.
Although the plaintiff claimed that the deputy could have moved out of the way and was “required” to use “less intrusive” force in that situation, the justices ruled that these arguments were “immaterial to the question of whether a police officer could have reasonably perceived he was in danger at the precise moment that he used deadly force.”
Officers “do not always have to use the least restrictive means” of control, Holmes noted. And the deputy “was under no obligation to take cover in order to discourage [the suspect] from using his vehicle as a weapon to inflict potentially deadly force.” The panel denied that the deputy’s actions were reckless or unreasonably created the need to use force.
The fact that the case began over the minor offense of public urination “does not make the vehicle any less dangerous” at the point that the suspect was attempting to flee from lawful detention, Holmes added.
In assessing the “degree of threat,” the justices considered “the manifest intentions of the suspect,” that he failed to comply with the deputy’s commands, that “hostile motions were made with the weapon,” and that the distance between the deputy and the suspect’s vehicle was “mere inches.”
Conclusion: “[F]rom the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, the totality of circumstances…powerfully support [the deputy’s] position that his use of deadly force was reasonable [and therefore he was] entitled to qualified immunity.”
The 10th Circuit includes KS, OK, NM, CO, WY, and UT.
This decision can be read in full, free of charge, by clicking here.