Unclearly Established Law: When Courts Ignore the Experts

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Within hours of publishing The 21-foot “Rule” is Back in the News, readers started asking us to look at Wilson v. Prince George’s County, Maryland.1  Apparently, this 4th Circuit Court of Appeals case has inspired policy revisions, training updates, and questions as to the relevance of the 21-foot principle.  I read the case and immediately knew what to do.  Nothing

In Wilson, the court held that an officer had used excessive force when he shot someone standing about 20 feet away, refusing to drop the knife that he was cutting himself with, and was otherwise not threatening anyone or making any sudden movements.  That the suspect had committed a previous misdemeanor involving force against another person did not alter the court’s view.

So far, the holding in Wilson doesn’t seem all that controversial.  If he’s not a threat to you and he’s not a threat to someone else, it’s unreasonable to shoot him.  Fair enough.

But the controversy surrounding the Wilson case, isn’t the idea that police can’t shoot a non-threatening suspect, we knew that already.  Instead, the controversy is that the court decided this suspect was non-threatening in the first place, and how they did it.  He simply told them that he wasn’t, and they accepted it.

The Suspect Stumbles

Although the suspect refused to drop the knife and admitted to taking steps toward the officer, he explained that those four little “stumbling” steps were the natural reaction to stabbing himself in the chest.  He claimed he wasn’t a threat to the officer or anyone else.  He merely wanted to commit suicide in front of his ex-girlfriend.  This was good enough for the appellate court. 

Now, many of you familiar with the case have disagreed with the court.  The officer in Wilson certainly did.  And with good reason. 

The Officer’s Version

While responding to a report of domestic violence, the officer learned that the suspect had kicked down his ex-girlfriend’s door.  After breaking into her apartment, the enraged suspect loudly cursed at his ex-girlfriend and others.  When the suspect finally left, the ex-girlfriend followed him out.  When she tried to call the police for help, the suspect knocked her phone into a gutter and punched her in the eye before leaving.

As the officer was receiving the report from the ex-girlfriend, she warned him that the suspect was returning.  The officer asked her to go back into her building so he could talk with the suspect, who by then could be seen walking toward the officer. 

The officer tried to talk to the suspect as they were approaching each other, but the suspect said nothing as he continued.  When the officer saw the suspect pull a shiny object from his pocket, he repeatedly told him to drop it.  At an estimated 40 feet apart, the officer recognized the object as a knife and drew his weapon.

The suspect stopped.  He ordered the officer to go away and to “Let me do what I wanna do.”  From there the suspect took several steps forward and appeared to be slitting his own throat.  The officer pled with him to stop and assured him it wasn’t worth it.  The suspect took several more steps toward the officer and began to stab himself in the chest.

At about 25 feet the suspect continued toward the officer who realized he couldn’t move back any farther without allowing the suspect access to the apartments.  He also realized that the ex-girlfriend had not gone back into her building but was instead standing behind him with her family. 

The suspect continued to walk toward the officer who repeatedly ordered him to drop the knife.  When the suspect took four additional steps toward the officer, the officer shot him.  The officer estimated the final distance to be between 10-15 feet.  The ex-girlfriend estimated the distance was closer to 8 feet.

No Experts Allowed

So, was the suspect a threat or not? 

The officer seemed to think so.  He even presented an expert report that a person armed with a knife standing 21 feet from an officer could rush toward, and cut, the officer before the officer could draw his weapon from its holster.  The district court thought this was an important piece of information.  However, the appeals court thought it was irrelevant. 

In the court’s opinion, any reference to how fast an officer can draw a holstered weapon against a suspect 21 feet away is irrelevant, when the officer had already drawn his weapon at 40 feet.  (Never mind that the suspect was between 8 and 20 feet at the time of the shooting.) 

Yes, the court clearly missed the point of the action vs. reaction principles illustrated by the Tueller drill.2  But, before you are tempted to focus on the court’s narrow view of the 21-foot principle, it didn’t matter.

That’s because, the court wasn’t willing to credit the expert with any insights that conflicted with the plaintiff’s version of events.  They added that it wasn’t their place to decide if the expert was credible.  That’s a job for the jury.

In the court’s view, they were only looking at the plaintiff’s version of events and, with that, they simply sidestepped any police practice or human factors applications and concluded that the suspect was not an immediate threat.

Just the Plaintiff’s Facts, Ma’am.

Was the court right?  Well, sort of.

In summary judgment cases, the court is required to accept the plaintiff’s version of the facts and, if there is a genuine dispute as to those facts, the court must interpret those facts with inferences that are most favorable to the plaintiff.

Even if every reasonable person on the planet believes the officers’ version of events is more credible, the court at the summary judgment stage is not allowed to weigh evidence or make credibility determinations.  So, unless there is evidence in the record that blatantly contradicts the plaintiff, such that no reasonable person could believe it, the court must simply accept the plaintiff’s version of the facts.

Now many of you are asking, “What happened to the ‘reasonable officer’ standard?”  Good question.

Where Was the Reasonable Officer Standard?

How many times have we heard that police are judged by a reasonable officer standard?

We’re told use-of-force assessments must consider that police are often forced to make split-second decisions, in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.  We learn that courts are required to consider an officer’s training, experience, and reasonable inferences drawn from the totality of circumstances.  Inferences that might escape an untrained person.

If the question is whether it was reasonable for the officer to perceive the suspect as a threat, why is the court concerned with how the suspect viewed himself?

I’m not sure they should have been.  But I’m also not sure it matters.  Ultimately the court gets to the right answer, they just took the long way to get there and confused a lot of people in the process.

Let’s look at how the court analyzed the case and you’ll understand what I mean.  You’ll also understand why when the court says the officer engaged in excessive force, they didn’t mean he actually engaged in excessive force.

Stay with me.  It’ll all make sense.

By Totality, I Mean Just Three

When analyzing excessive force claims, courts must simply answer whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer was reasonable.  Some courts have curiously reduced the totality of circumstances approach down to just three factors.  You guessed it.  The Graham factors.

For those not familiar with the Graham factors, they were intended as examples of some circumstances that might be relevant as courts analyze police use of force cases.  Some courts use them exclusively and other courts don’t use them at all.

For those that do use them, they include the severity of the offense, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.  Each of these factors are to be judged through the lens of the reasonable officer, who we described above.

And this is where the Wilson case takes a weird turn.  The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals used the Graham factors exclusively to assess the officer’s use of force in Wilson.  But instead of analyzing those factors through an officer’s perspective, they continued to view the factors through the lens of the suspect.

First, we’ll look at how the court decided each factor. Later, I’ll explain why this is a much bigger problem than the court likely anticipated.  

Graham Factors

Because the suspect did not dispute that he kicked down his ex-girlfriend’s door and assaulted her, and because the officer was aware of these circumstances, the “severity of the offense” factor went to the officer.

Since the officer never attempted to arrest the suspect and the suspect was not attempting to evade the officer, the court gave the “never resisted arrest” factor to the suspect. (Note: Remember to tell your suspects that they’re under arrest!)

Finally, as to whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, the court answered he did not.  I’ll explain in the next section, but for now the final factor goes to the suspect. 

Now if you’re tired, stand up, stretch and come back when you’re paying attention.  You’ll need all your focus to track the court’s twisted logic that follows.

The Plaintiff as Reasonable Officer?

When a court asks if a suspect posed a threat to the safety of the officer or others, it’s important to remember, they aren’t asking if the suspect was an actual threat, but instead whether it was reasonable for the officer to perceive the suspect as a threat.  That’s why the perspective of the officer is so important.

But in Wilson, to determine whether a reasonable officer could have perceived the suspect as a threat, the court relied on the plaintiff’s version of the facts (which they must) but then interpreted those facts with inferences that only favored the plaintiff—which they are only required to do if the facts are in dispute. 

So, what did this Alice in Wonderland approach mean for the Wilson case?  To determine what a reasonable officer could have perceived, the court refused to use a reasonable officer’s perspective. 

Consider how that impacted the use-of-force analysis.

It was undisputed that the suspect had a knife.  The court didn’t consider what that meant to the officer, but instead dismissed it as a small knife only being used by the suspect on himself.

It was undisputed that the suspect refused to drop the knife.  The court didn’t consider what that meant to the officer, but instead commented that the suspect claimed he never pointed it in the direction of anyone but himself. 

It was undisputed that the suspect took four quick steps toward the officer.  The court didn’t consider what that meant to the officer, but instead simply characterized them as non-threatening “stumbles.”

Because there was a dispute as to how far the suspect stood from the officer, the court was required to accept the plaintiff’s estimate of 20 feet.  But even assuming 20 feet, the court refused to consider what that distance meant to an officer confronting an armed suspect.  Instead, they simply concluded that the suspect was not a threat.

Now remember, the question that the court is supposed to be answering is whether a reasonable officer could have perceived that the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others.  This is their question to answer, not a jury’s.

But instead of addressing the relevant Graham factor, the court concludes: “A jury could determine that [the suspect], standing 20 feet away and armed only with a pocket knife that he was using solely against himself, did not pose an immediate threat to [the officer] or others, thereby rendering [the officer’s] use of lethal force unreasonable.”

Whenever you read, “a jury could determine the officer was unreasonable,” you should also read, “a jury could determine the officer was reasonable.”  In other words, it doesn’t tell you anything about the lawfulness of the officer’s conduct.

The question before the court was whether a reasonable officer could have perceived the threat, and again, it was their question to decide.

Ultimately though, the court gets to the right answer. 

But it took the return of the reasonable officer to do it.

The Reasonable Officer Returns

Once the Wilson court identified the relevant facts and interpreted them all in favor of the plaintiff, they finally invited the reasonable officer back into their analysis.  That is because, even after the court found (in the plaintiff’s view) that the officer engaged in excessive force, they still had to determine whether it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that what the officer did was excessive.

This is because society only holds officers civilly accountable when they had “fair notice” that what they were doing was unconstitutional.  That means, an officer is entitled to immunity unless it would have been obvious to every reasonable officer that what he is doing violates the law.

Said another way, if there can be honest debate among officers as to whether a use of force was reasonable, then qualified immunity applies.

So, to answer this final question, the Wilson court searched for cases that were close enough to the facts of their case that they could say the officer should have known better.

First, the Wilson court compiled the plaintiff’s version of the facts and the plaintiff’s inferences from those facts and asked:

Would it have been clear to a reasonable officer that it was excessive force to shoot an individual who:

  1. was suspected of having committed a burglary and a battery;
  2. was standing about 20 feet from the officer holding a knife, inflicting harm on himself and stumbling, but not threatening others or making sudden movements; and
  3. was refusing to obey the officer’s repeated commands to drop the knife at the time he was shot?

Next, the court looked for cases in the 4th Circuit that would have sufficiently warned the officer that this conduct was illegal.  They found none. 

Then, they looked through other federal circuits for cases that would have notified the officer of his lawlessness.  Another dead end. 

Finally, after looking at the case law, what the court found was that, no reasonable officer would have known that the conduct described by the Wilson court, was unlawful.  Without such notice, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

UnClearly Established Law

When the court was looking at case law, it was hoping to find clearly established law.  That is, cases where an officer’s conduct, when viewed through the lens of reasonable officers, was found to have been unreasonable.

That is what makes Wilson such a problematic case.  If the court would have analyzed the facts through the lens of a reasonable officer, then telling us that the officer engaged in excessive force would have meant something.  It would have value in judging future cases and future conduct of the police.

But the court incorrectly analyzed all the facts through the plaintiff’s perspective, which makes the case useless as a measure of future police judgment and conduct.  Of course, that didn’t stop the court; they had one final warning for the profession.  Don’t do it again!

Consider for a moment how that warning must have sounded to the officer involved in the Wilson case. 

Remember, summary judgment cases are not trials.  There are no evidentiary hearings or credibility tests.  If there is a dispute as to evidence, the court just picks the plaintiff’s version.  If the plaintiff claims one thing and twelve people claim something else, the court must believe the plaintiff.  That means, the case that the court is evaluating for summary judgment, may look nothing like the case once it goes to trial.

In Wilson, the scene that the court felt required to evaluate, involved a non-threatening, suicidal suspect, standing 20 feet away. 

It is very likely, that the case being evaluated by the court looked very different to the officer watching, experiencing, and interpreting it through the reasonable officer lens. 

Which means, the officer and the profession were being warned not to do something that likely never happened.

Why Human Factors Still Matter

If you read the facts from the reasonable officer perspective, you also probably came to a much different conclusion than the court viewing the case from the perspective of the plaintiff. 

You likely identified and prioritized multiple government interests beyond just defense of self or others. 

You probably assessed the threats facing the officer and others by considering human factors.  Just some of which included: the effect of splitting attention between de-escalation, communication, movement, environmental scans, and monitoring a medical emergency as it progressed. 

You likely understood and considered time distance studies like the 21-foot principle, speed of assaults, sprint studies, and action reaction relationships.

You understood that threat assessments and responses are educated guesses affected by perceptions and impacted by light, noise, attention, angles, speed, and emotional arousal.

When you heard the court say that the officer engaged in excessive force, you may have experienced cognitive dissonance, until you remembered that what the court was actually saying was based on the plaintiff’s view of the case.

Fortunately, the court said nothing that should have changed any of your hard earned, specialized, reasonable police insights.  (Except maybe to remind us to tell suspects when they’re under arrest!)

In the real world, away from the summary judgment rules, officers are still expected to assess threats from the perspective of reasonable officers.  They are not expected to interpret the world in a light most favorable to future plaintiffs.

Officers are not expected to be perfect; they are expected to be reasonable. 

And, if they have been doing that, then what they need to change as a result of the Wilson case, is nothing.

  1. Wilson v. Prince George’s County, Maryland, 893 F.3d 213 2018 []
  2. For an explanation and analysis of the Tueller drill, see 21-Foot Rule is Back in the News. []
9 Responses
    1. This was a very well thought out use of force analysis. The perception and reasoning from a law enforcement standpoint provided excellent insight into the judicial branch’s mind set with this type of case. Police Officers must be mindful that when documenting their use of force, it is crucial to express the law enforcement legal authority that governed their use of force. Whether it would be to affect an arrest, (as in this case), prevent an escape, or overcome resistance. These set the basis for legal use of force and must be included.

  1. Craig Dickerson

    Good Afternoon,
    I was the Expert Witness in this case providing a Force Science Analysis of the actions of both the Officer and the Plaintiff. The Judge in this case had a problem with the 21 foot guideline and the time distance studies. I was not permitted to explain those principals.

    1. Von Kliem

      Thanks for commenting Craig. It seemed clear from the court’s footnote that they refused to consider your report. I hope that came across in the article. Thanks for trying!

  2. Scott D. Nauman

    If you are currently a law enforcement officer, you had better be following the articles published by Force Science. The information they provide might save your life and career one day!

  3. Joseph King

    Great breakdown of the incident. I understand that the court’s view is limited and I’m not trying to initiate a lengthy thread of “What ifs?” and/or “would, could or should” scenarios , but I can’t help to observe the following .

    The originating incident was not just a simple burglary and assault; it was a Domestic Violence attack. It is a commonly accepted fact that the threat level /danger factor is elevated at any incident (that law enforcement encounters) that is motivated by, and or has underlying causes of, Domestic Violence. Along with Car Stops, Domestic Violence cases are consistently a focus of LE attention and training due to their inherent danger.

    I can only speak for Massachusetts – Domestic Violence is such a socially acknowledged, violent crime issue, that the Legislature enacted, and the courts recognize, laws to instruct, and empower, police officers to make arrests and/or further their investigative measures into crimes that would otherwise be non arrest-able misdemeanors. I have to believe that similar state statues exist throughout the country.

    *In addition to the burglary and assault, the throwing of the victim’s phone is an additional factor that demonstrates the suspects intimidation of a victim and/or witness; not to mention his state of mind to continue on with his violent criminal activity. *

    I am not attempting to Monday morning this case. I’m just surprised that a legitimate socially recognized (and legislated) issue like Domestic Violence did not factor-in to the courts decision making process. It makes me feel that this decision was more of attempt to minimize the perception of daily threats facing law enforcement, and thus enable/empower a judge(s) to more subjectively determine an officers state of mind during critical incidents.

  4. D. Holler

    Thanks for the inside scoop Craig. Its scary that we have a system the Courts are to use to figure out reasonableness and such… and then there are Judges that just want to do whatever they want and go against the grain. Not to counter a system that needs fixing… but just because they can.

    Also, Thanks again F.S. for another outstanding analysis.

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