June 24, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Officers Reasonably Believed Use of Deadly Force was Necessary

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Carabajal v. City of Cheyenne, Wyoming on February 6, 2017.

This case arose out of an instance involving the Plaintiffs, Mathew Carabajal and his son, V.M.C., being pulled over by several officers, including Officer Thornton and Officer Sutton. On September 19, 2011, Mr. Carabajal was driving a vehicle containing his infant son, V.M.C., and two others. A police vehicle with its lights and sirens activated followed him, but he continued to drive for approximately six blocks, obeying the speed limit. After Mr. Carabajal pulled over, Officer Thornton, one of two officers who later arrived at the scene, stood in front of the vehicle, while a police vehicle was positioned behind Mr. Carabajal’s vehicle and two other vehicles were parked in front of Mr. Carabajal’s. Officer Thornton shouted at Mr. Carabajal, “Don’t start the car or I’ll shoot.” Mr. Carabajal’s vehicle began to move forward and, after three seconds, Officer Thornton fired two rounds from his shotgun at Mr. Carabajal, injuring him. The car then stopped and Officers Thornton and Sutton removed Mr. Carabajal from the vehicle. Mr. Carabajal fell to the ground and Officers Sutton and Thornton slowly dragged Mr. Carabajal out of the vehicle.

Plaintiffs sued the City of Cheyenne, Wyoming, its police department, and four officers, including Officers Thornton and Sutton, in their individual capacities. The district court dismissed V.M.C.’s claim that he was unlawfully seized when Officer Thornton shot into the vehicle he was an occupant in. The district court granted summary judgment on Mr. Carabajal’s excessive force claims, finding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court also held that the complaint did not plead a negligence claim against the City based on the alleged hiring of Officer Thornton, due to a lack of evidentiary support.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Mr. Carabajal’s challenge of the district court’s grant of qualified immunity on his excessive force claims. In this case, the events were captured on video, and the Tenth Circuit states that it relied on that evidence. The Tenth Circuit articulated the two-part analysis required when a defendant asserts qualified immunity. First, the plaintiff must allege facts to demonstrate that a violation of a constitutional right occurred. Second, if that demonstration is made, the court must determine whether the right at issue was “clearly established” at the time of the incident. The plaintiff must show both of these factors.

Mr. Carabajal alleged that Officers Thornton and Sutton violated his Fourth Amendment rights through the use of excessive force.  The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” A “seizure” must have occurred and the plaintiff must prove that is was “unreasonable.” Mr. Carabajal made two claims of excessive force.

Mr. Carabajal’s first excessive force claim regarded Officer Thornton’s shooting of Mr. Carabajal. The district court held that the use of force in this case was reasonable. The Tenth Circuit agreed. The Tenth Circuit cited the facts that Mr. Carabajal had eluded police for several blocks, was ordered not to start the vehicle, and that Mr. Carabajal appeared to deliberately drive his vehicle in Officer Thornton’s direction. Additionally, because of the positions of the three police vehicles, in those close quarters, the Tenth Circuit held that a reasonable officer could conclude that his life was in danger and employ deadly force to stop the vehicle. It was reasonable for Officer Thornton to have perceived that Mr. Carabajal’s driving was deliberate. Therefore, Officer Thornton’s conduct was reasonable.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that, even if Officer Thornton’s conduct was excessive under the Forth Amendment, it was not clearly established that his conduct was unlawful at the time of the shooting. The Tenth Circuit addresses a circuit split regarding the issue and a lack of Supreme Court precedent to hold that the unlawfulness of Officer Thornton’s conduct was not clearly established.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that qualified immunity was warranted regarding Mr. Carabajal’s first excessive force claim.

Mr. Carabajal’s second excessive force claim regarded Officers Thornton and Sutton’s removal of Mr. Carabajal from the vehicle after he was shot. The Tenth Circuit held that the video evidence revealed that the officers did not use an unreasonable amount of force, nor was it unreasonable to remove Mr. Carabajal from the vehicle under those circumstances. When Mr. Carabajal was removed, the officers were aware that he had been non-compliant with police instructions at least twice. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit held that Mr. Carabajal did not demonstrate a violation of a constitutional right and that Officers Thornton and Sutton were entitled to qualified immunity regarding Mr. Carabajal’s second excessive force claim.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed V.M.C.’s claim that he was unlawfully seized by Officer Thornton when he shot into the vehicle that V.M.C. occupied. The Tenth Circuit held that even if V.M.C. did plead a plausible unreasonable seizure claim, Officer Thornton would have been entitled to qualified immunity because the law does not clearly establish whether firing a weapon into a car constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the district court’s dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ negligent hiring claim against the City. A plaintiff must show that the City was reckless or negligent in its employment of improper persons in work that posed a risk of harm to others, for the City to be liable. Here, the City engaged in an extensive investigation into Officer Thornton that demonstrated he qualified under Wyoming standards for employment as a police officer. The Plaintiffs presented no evidence that the City was on notice that Officer Thornton was likely to use unnecessary or excessive force against a member of the public. Thus, the Tenth Circuit held that the City owed no legal duty to protect Plaintiffs as they alleged.

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