June 23, 2017

Tenth Circuit: No Sixth Amendment Violation where Court Disallowed Questioning Regarding Victim’s Mental Health

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. John on February 27, 2017.

Defendant and the victim were related. At trial, the victim testified to the following facts: The victim was in the shower when Defendant showed up at her house. He started undressing in front of the shower door while the victim was still in the shower. Defendant moved towards the victim and the victim struggled to get away. Defendant pulled the towel away from the victim and pushed her head toward his “private parts.” The victim was able to get away from Defendant and grabbed a blanket before running outside. When outside, the victim called the police. Officers arrived after Defendant had left. The officers found the shower door tilted and the bathroom trashcan turned over. No forensic testing occurred. Defendant was convicted after a jury trial of one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country and one count of abusive sexual contact in Indian county.

At trial, Defendant wanted to cross-examine the victim about an incident that occurred in Phoenix. The district court did not allow the line of questioning and the Defendant challenged the courts ruling on appeal claiming it violated his Confrontation Clause rights under the Sixth Amendment and his right to present a complete defense under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Tenth Circuit summarized the facts of the Phoenix incident that it obtained from police reports. The victim had visited her sister in Phoenix. She alleged that her sister pressured her to drink. After the two argued, the victim tried to cut her writs. She was then taken to the hospital where she was transferred to an inpatient behavioral-health unit after telling the staff that she had been having suicidal thoughts for two years. During intake, she denied using any illicit substances, even though she told emergency staff that she used marijuana. The intake staff determined she had a mood disorder, but she was discharged without any medication needed. The victim’s sister denied to police that she gave the victim alcohol or coerced her to drink. Because the police could not determine how the victim got the alcohol, they closed the case.

On appeal, the Defendant argued that the Phoenix incident showed that the victim would falsely accuse him of sexual assault given her poorly controlled behavior and drug use revealed by the incident. It also would show her propensity to lie and accuse family members. These facts could have led the jury to draw “vital inferences” in his favor.

The Tenth Circuit held that because the Defendant only argued at trial that the Phoenix incident would show that the victim had an impaired ability to perceive events, and not the reasons given on appeal, Defendant was precluded from arguing such reasons on appeal. In fact, the Tenth Circuit points to the fact that Defendant’s counsel rejected the possibility of using the Phoenix incident for the reasons stated on appeal, which the Tenth Circuit held was an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.”

The Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was not violated because that right is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has held that trial judges retain wide latitude to impose reasonable limits on cross-examination based on concerns about harassment, prejudice, and confusion of the issues. The Tenth Circuit held that the Phoenix incident was not even marginally relevant to the victim’s ability to remember or relate the shower incident. It would not show that the victim was on drugs at the time of the shower incident. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that no lay person could draw those inferences.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed the Defendant’s challenges to three jury instructs concerning the assessment of evidence.

The first challenged instruction stated: “The testimony of the complaining witness need not be corroborated if the jury believes the complaining witness beyond a reasonable doubt.” Defendant argued that the instruction did no accurately reflect the government’s burden of proving each element of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it properly informed the jury that it could convict on the basis of the testimony of a single witness, only if they believed that witness. Further, another instruction told the jurors that they could not convict unless they found each element of each offense beyond reasonable doubt.

The second challenged instruction stated: “ An attorney has the right to interview a witness for the purpose of learning what testimony the witness will give. The fact that a witness has talked to an attorney does not reflect adversely to the truth of such testimony.” Defendant argued that this instruction insulated from the jury’s scrutiny the cross-examination of the victim about being improperly influenced by the prosecutor. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it did not prevent defense counsel from making a commonsense suggestion that inappropriate coaching influenced the witness, which the counsel actually made.

The final challenged instruction stated: “You may infer, but you are certainly not required to infer, that a person intends the natural and probably consequences of acts knowingly done or knowingly omitted.” Defendant argues that this instruction was ambiguous, because it was not stated which element the instruction was meant to modify, and that it was confusing because it created uncertainty as to the requisite level of intent. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by issuing this instruction because the court made clear to the jury that the burden was on the government to prove the requisite intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the lesser-included charge of simple assault, rather than just the charges of attempted aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. The district court held that there was no evidence that the encounter was anything but sexual. The Tent Circuit affirmed this decision holding that the jury could reasonably have found that the alleged incident did not occur, but that there was no reasonable grounds for believing that Defendant assaulted the victim but with no sexual intent.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Tenth Circuit: Drug Dog Search Illegal Where Warning Given for Speeding and Consent to Search Refused

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Lopez on February 27, 2017.

On June 21, 2013, Angela Lopez was driving eastbound in Kansas. Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Robert Krause pulled the vehicle over for going 79 milers per hour in a 65-mile-per-hour zone. Adrienne Lopez was in the passenger seat. Throughout the encounter, Adrienne, rather than Angela, did almost all of the talking, which Krause said could be a sign of nervousness. Krause asked Angela for her license, insurance, and car-rental paperwork. Krause then looked in the back seat of the car. Upon doing so, Adrienne said, “Don’t look back there, it’s a mess.” Krause asked about their travel plans. Adrienne told him that they were going from California and headed to “Kansas City or Nebraska” to rescue her sister “because she was getting beat up by her boyfriend.” Angela provided Krause a receipt from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that was issued to her when she reported losing her license, rather than her actual license.

Krause asked both occupants if they had drugs in the car, to which both replied no. Krause relayed Angela’s information to the dispatcher and learned that she had a valid driver’s license and no criminal history. Krause warned Angela for speeding and turned to walk away. He immediately turned back and asked Angela if she would answer a few more questions, which she consented to. Krause asked where they were heading. Adrienne answered that she did not know the exact city because her phone did not have reception.

Krause then asked the Defendants if he could search the vehicle. They refused. Krause then detained them until a drug dog could be brought to the vehicle, which took about twenty minutes. The dog alerted Krause to the front seat where Adrienne’s purse was located. Adrienne admitted having some marijuana in her purse, which Krause found and then searched the rest of the car. He found four packages in a cooler in the back seat of methamphetamine. The packages totaled 1,766 grams of methamphetamine.

The United States District Court for the District of Kansas denied Defendants’ motions to suppress the evidence of methamphetamine found in the car. The two were convicted of possessing more than 500 grams of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, and of conspiracy to do the same. The Defendants appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first established that a traffic stop must be justified at its inception and that the officer’s actions during the stop must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that initially justified it. A stop may be extended beyond that scope if the person stopped consents to the extension or if the police have a reasonable suspicion that other illegal activity has occurred or is occurring.

Here, the Defendants did not consent to the extension of the stop by Krause beyond its initial purpose. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit addressed whether Krause had reasonable suspicion that the Defendants were engaged in criminal activity, which the government bears the burden of proving.

The government put forth three suspicious factors that justified detention: (1) Adrienne was nervous; (2) Adrienne asked Krause not to look at the backseat because it was messy, even though it was not; and (3) Defendant’s travel plans were implausible.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Adrienne’s nervousness. It stated that it consistently assigns that factor limited significance because innocent people can be nervous in wide varieties. In order to contribute to reasonable suspicion, the Tenth Circuit held that there must be extreme nervousness, which the district court did not find, and Krause did not so testify.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that Adrienne’s comments about the backseat gave little support for reasonable suspicion. It stated that in hindsight, the comments seemed revealing. But at the time, there was nothing incriminating in view on the backseat. Further, nothing stopped Krause from taking a closer look through the back window.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the government’s argument that the Defendants’ travel plans were implausible. The government pointed to the fact that the two only rented the car for two days, which was not enough time to drive to their destination and return. The Tenth Circuit held that the travel plans might have been overly ambitions, but they could reasonably have been done. First, the Tenth Circuit pointed to the fact that they were driving through the night, which was why two drivers were necessary. Next, because they were rescuing Adrienne’s sister from an abusive boyfriend, it was reasonable to assume they would not stay at the destination very long. Finally, because it was understandable that the sister needed to move to protect herself from her abusive boyfriend, it was reasonable that the Defendants did not need a more precise location until they were closer to the destination. Further, the Tenth Circuit stated that it has generally been reluctant to give weight to the reasonable-suspicion analysis to unusual travel purposes, except in extreme cases.

The Tenth Circuit held that the circumstances did not suffice to justify the continued detention of the Defendants. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the evidence seized from the car must be suppressed.

The Tenth Circuit then quickly dispatched with the governments two remaining arguments. First, the government argued that the evidence was admissible against Adrienne because the discovery of the drugs was not the fruit of her unlawful detention. The Tenth Circuit held that because Krause seized the marijuana from Adrienne’s purse, and the detention of Adrienne’s personal property led to the search of the car and discovery of the methamphetamine, Adrienne did have standing to challenge the admission into evidence of the drugs.

Second, the government argued that the detention was lawful as to Angela because there was probable cause to arrest her for driving while not in possession of her driver’s license. The Tenth Circuit held that there was no probable cause to arrest Angela. First, the documents Angela gave Krause would likely be a “driver’s license” under the Kansas statute. Further, even if not a “driver’s license,” Krause learned from the dispatcher that she had a valid driver’s license in California, and therefore had enough information to know that she could not be convicted for the offense under the statute. The Tenth Circuit held that an officer does not have probable cause to arrest a person for a crime he know she could not be convicted of.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit reversed the Defendants’ convictions and remanded to the district court for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Tenth Circuit: No Abuse of Discretion by Imposing Within-Guidelines Sentence after Variance Request

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Wireman on February 28, 2017.

The issue in this case was whether the Defendant’s sentence was procedurally reasonable when the district court failed to address Defendant’s non-frivolous arguments for a downward variance from his within-United States Sentencing Guidelines sentence.

Defendant pled guilty to five counts of distributing child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography. Defendant had also emailed a friend non-pornographic images of children that he personally knew and claimed at the time he had sexually abused. Defendant had prior sexual offenses that involved children, including being convicted of five different sexually based crimes involving minors, four of which included physical sexual conduct with a minor.

Section 2G2.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines  set Defendant’s base level offense for his crimes and applied several other Specific Offense Characteristics under § 2G2.2 to Defendant, which increased his offense level. These SOCs included increases because (i) the material involved prepubescent minors; (i) he distributed material involving the sexual exploitation of a minor; (iii) the material involved sadistic or violent depictions; (iv) he engaged in a pattern of activity involving sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor; and (v) because he used a computer to distribute the material. The corresponding USSG range for Defendant’s crimes and the added SOCs was 210-262 months’ imprisonment.

In his sentencing memorandum to the district court, Defendant argued that he was entitled to a downward variance from the USSG range because § 2G2.2 was inherently flawed. Defendant argued that the Sentencing Commission did not depend on empirical data when drafting § 2G2.2, that the range for his crimes was “harsher than necessary,” and that the SOCs in § 2G2.2 were utilized so often that they applied in nearly every child-pornography case and therefore fail to distinguish between various offenders. The district court never specifically mentioned this memorandum at sentencing, but alluded to it.

The district court ultimately sentenced Defendant to concurrent terms of 240 months’ imprisonment on each of the six counts against him. The district court addressed the personal nature of the non-pornographic images the Defendant emailed to his friend as well as Defendant’s prior criminal history. After handing down the sentence, the district court asked Defendant if they had “anything further,” to which Defendant’s counsel stated that they did not.

On appeal, Defendant claimed that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because the district court did not adequately address his critiques of § 2G2.2. Because Defendant did not contemporaneously object in the district court to the method by which the district court arrived at a sentence, including that the sentencing court failed to explain adequately the sentence imposed, the Tenth Circuit applied the plain error standard of review, rather than de novo review. The Tenth Circuit explained that it finds plain error only when there is “(1) error, (2) that is plain, which (3) affects substantial rights, and which (4) seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the first prong of the plain error standard, whether the district court committed error.  The Tenth Circuit first noted that a district court must explain its reasons for rejecting a defendant’s non-frivolous argument for a more lenient sentence. Further, the Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s critiques of § 2G2.2 were non-frivolous. In fact, the Tenth Circuit addressed how many of its sister circuit courts, along with itself, have described arguments criticizing § 2G2.2 as “quite forceful.”

However, the Tenth Circuit stated the principle that whether a district court can functionally reject or instead must explicitly reject a defendant’s arguments depends on whether the sentence imposed is within or outside of the USSG range. If the sentence is varied upwards of the USSG range, the district court must specifically address and reject the defendant’s arguments for a more lenient sentence. If it is within the USSG range, then the district court does not need to specifically address and reject each of the defendant’s arguments, so long as the court somehow indicates that it did not rest on the guidelines alone, but considered whether the USSG sentence actually conforms in the circumstances to the statutory factors.

In the Tenth Circuit, a within-guideline range sentence by the district court is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of reasonableness on appeal. The Tenth Circuit stated that this was true even if the USSG at issue arguable contains serious flaws or lacks an empirical basis.

In this case, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court was at least aware of Defendant’s arguments because the district court explicitly referenced Defendant’s sentencing memorandum at the sentencing hearing. Because the district court’s ultimate sentence was within the USSG range, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not need to explicitly reject Defendant’s arguments. The district court needed only to indicate that it did not rest on the guidelines alone, which the district court did. The district court stated that it relied on the USSG as well as Defendant’s extensive criminal history and the personal nature of the emailed images in determining Defendant’s sentence. The Tenth Circuit held that this acted as a functional rejection of Defendant’s policy disagreement with § 2G2.2. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err by not explicitly responding to Defendant’s arguments for a more lenient sentence. Because the district court did not err, the Tenth Circuit did not address the three remaining prongs of the plain error review.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sentence of Defendant.

Tenth Circuit Judge McKay wrote a concurrence to this decision. Judge McKay expressed his view that precedence requires a district court rejecting a defendant’s non-frivolous arguments to provide at least a general statement of its reasons for rejecting such arguments.  If the defendant’s arguments are that the USSG reflect an unsound judgment, Judge McKay states that the sentencing judge should go further to explain why he rejected those arguments. Here, the district court did not do as much.

Further, Judge McKay questioned the wisdom of applying the “reasonable” presumption to within-Guidelines sentences, regardless of a particular Guideline’s alleged lack of empirical support.  The Sentencing Commission did not use an empirical approach when developing § 2G2.2, and therefore Judge McKay believes that the Tenth Circuit should not presume the sentence’s reasonableness. Regardless, he agrees that the Majority followed the rules of the Tenth Circuit in applying the “reasonable” presumption as it stands.

Judge McKay believed that the district court erred, but he concurred in judgment because the Defendant still could not satisfy the requirement that the error affected his substantial rights. There was nothing on the record to suggest that the district court would have imposed a different sentence even if he explicitly considered Defendant’s arguments.

Tenth Circuit: Disability Appeals Council Not Required to Expressly Evaluate Treating Physician’s Report

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Vallejo v. Berryhill on February 28, 2017.

Vallejo applied for supplemental security income benefits alleging that she had been disabled for several months. The Social Security Administration denied her claim. She received a hearing with an administrative law judge, who issued a decision adverse to Vallejo. The next day, Vallejo’s treating physician, Dr. Ratner, completed his opinion, which stated that Vallejo was bipolar with an extreme level of impairment. Vallejo requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ’s decision and submitted Ratner’s opinion with her request. The Appeals Council denied review, stating that it considered Ratner’s opinion and additional evidence but found the evidence did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ’s decision. This rendered the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision.

Vallejo sought judicial review of the Commission’s final decision. The district court found that the Appeals Council erred in not properly articulating its assessment of Ratner’s opinion in denying Vallejo’s request for review. The court reasoned that the Appeals Council was required to either assign Ratner’s opinion controlling weight or articulate reasons for assigning it a lesser weight. Because neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council expressly evaluated Ratner’s opinion, the district court reversed the Commissioner’s decision and remanded to the Appeals Council to either determine what weight to give Ratner’s opinion or to remand to an ALJ with directions to make such a determination.

The Tenth Circuit held that it had jurisdiction to hear this appeal because the district court’s remand was a sentence-four remand. The Tenth Circuit held this because the district court did not retain jurisdiction and the remand was not solely for consideration of new evidence that was not before the Commissioner.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the issue of whether the district court’s determination that the Appeals Council failed to apply the correct legal standard was an error.

The Tenth Circuit held that the Appeals Circuit was not required to expressly analyze the new evidence of Ratner’s opinion. Rather, the statutes or regulations only require the Appeals Council to “consider” the new evidence. The Tenth Circuit acknowledges that an express analysis from the Appeals Council would be helpful to judicial review. But, further states that nothing in the statutes or regulations requires the Appeals Council to provide that analysis.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s order reversing the Commissioner’s final decision and remanding to the Appeals Council. The Tenth Circuit remanded to the district court with directions to address Vallejo’s remaining arguments and determine if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence in the administrative record supported the Commissioner’s final decision.

Tenth Circuit: No Fourth Amendment Violation Where Person with Apparent Authority Consented to Search

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Patel v. Hall on March 1, 2017.

On April 20, 1011, Officers Bubla and Hall arrived at Mr. Austin’s auto-repair business pursuant to a call from Ms. Austin regarding suspicious activity by their landlord, Plaintiff Chetan Patel. The officers were informed that several cars that Plaintiff brought in were missing their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Additionally, Mr. Austin told the officers that he suspected the VINs had been switched on certain vehicles.

The officers contacted the County Attorney’s Office after speaking with the Austins and were informed that the officers could permit the Austins to remove their belongings from the premises and seal the building pending a search warrant. The officers also photographed the trucks with missing or replaced VIN plates which Mr. Austin had pointed out to them. The officers sealed the building. The next morning, Mr. and Ms. Austin and their son submitted written statements to the police and swore to their truthfulness in front of a notary. The statements included instances where the Plaintiff told Mr. Austin he needed to remove Plaintiff’s vehicles off the premises “because they were starting to draw the state’s attention.”

Officer Hall was unable to immediately obtain a search warrant, as none of the judges in Big Horn County were available. Officer Hall contacted the County Attorney’s Office to inquire whether there was probable cause to arrest Plaintiff because Officer Hall believed Plaintiff might remove evidence from the premises. The County Attorney determined that there was probable cause to justify a warrantless arrest for felony VIN fraud. Plaintiff was arrested and the county court issued an arrest warrant the next day, along with a search warrant for the premises.

Pursuant to the search warrant, the officers discovered a syringe and white powder on a table in the premises. The officers left the building and obtained a new warrant to search for drugs as well as VIN plates inside the building. In total, the officers seized two loose VIN plates, a truck with switched VIN plates, a truck with a missing VIN plate, and an empty insurance envelope which was found laying on the floor with a claim number written on it. The officers also photographed several documents with VIN numbers written on them.

The charges against Plaintiff for felony VIN fraud were dismissed on October 4, 2011. In April 2014, Plaintiff filed the § 1983 complaint. Defendants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff supplied an affidavit purportedly signed by Mr. Austin. Plaintiff’s two attorneys also submitted affidavits stating they met with Plaintiff and Mr. Austin when Mr. Austin allegedly made statements that differed from his original sworn police witness statement.

The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants and refused to consider the purported Mr. Austin affidavit. The district court also disregarded Plaintiff’s attorneys’ affidavits holding that the affidavits would make the attorneys material witnesses to the case in violation of Rule 3.7 of the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct.  The district court held that Plaintiff had not shown a constitutional violation relating to the search and seizure because (i) Mr. Austin consented to the initial search, (ii) the officers had probable cause to seize the shop while they obtained a search warrant, (iii) the subsequent search was conducted pursuant to a search warrant, and (iv) there was sufficient probable cause for Plaintiff’s arrest. The district court also rejected Plaintiff’s claim that the search was beyond the scope of the search warrant because Plaintiff had not shown the officer’s actions violated clearly established law. Finally, the district court dismissed Plaintiff’s state law claims with prejudice based on a procedural deficiency by Plaintiff and the state defense of qualified immunity.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Officer Hall on Plaintiff’s official-capacity claim. The claim requires evidence that the municipality “caused the harm through the execution of its own policy or customs or by those whose acts may fairly be said to represent official policy.” The police department at the time had no chief of police, and Officer Hall was the senior officer. The Tenth Circuit laid out the test to decide whether a government employee is a final policymaker whose actions can give rise to municipal liability. First, the employee must be constrained by policies not of his own making. Second, his decisions must be final. Finally, the policy decisions and actions must fall within the realm of the employee’s grant of authority.

The Tenth Circuit held that there was no evidence to indicate whether or not Officer Hall was meaningfully constrained by policies not of his own making, whether or not his decisions were final, or whether his actions fell within the realm of his grant of authority. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff failed to satisfy the municipal liability test. Simply because Hall was “in charge” before the new chief took office was not enough. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Plaintiff’s official-capacity claims.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the claims against Defendants in their individual capacities. The Tenth Circuit held that because Defendants asserted qualified immunity, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to establish that the Defendants violated a constitutional right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.

Plaintiff’s first claim was against Officers Hall and Bubla for violation of his Fourth Amendment right when they initially searched the shop without a warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the search was conducted pursuant to consent. The Austins had actual or apparent authority to consent as both worked at the auto-repair business. Ms. Austin contacted police and both she and Mr. Austin were present when the officers were shown around the shop. Mr. Austin did not protest, and the Tenth Circuit held that this was non-verbal consent.

Next, Plaintiff argued that Officers Hall and Bubla violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they sealed the premises without a warrant or probable cause. The Tenth Circuit held that there was probable cause and therefore Plaintiff’s rights were not violated. Probable cause existed because of what the officers found during their initial search with the Austins, Plaintiff’s suspected criminal conduct, and what Mr. Austin had told the officers about his conversations with Plaintiff. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the officers were justified in sealing the building.

Third, Plaintiff argued that Hall violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him without a warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the arrest was valid because Hall had probable cause to believe Plaintiff was fraudulently altering VIN Plates. The Tenth Circuit held that the factors justifying the warrantless seizure of the building also supported Plaintiff’s arrest.

Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the warrants to search his shop and for his arrest were defective because they were “procured with reckless insufficient information.” The Tenth Circuit stated that there only needs to be a “substantial probability” that the suspect committed the crime before making an arrest. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff’s evidence did not dispute that there was a substantial probability. Further because the prior search was lawful due to consent, the Tenth Circuit held that there was probable cause for a warrant to search the shop based on the initial findings.

Fifth, Plaintiff argued that the officers exceeded the scope of the search warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the first two ways alleged by Plaintiff were not supported by evidence. The third allegation was that the officers exceeded the scope by seizing an envelope found on the ground of the shop. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff met his burden of showing that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on that issue. The warrant clearly specified what items were to be seized, and by seizing additional items, the officers acted unreasonably for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the district court’s decision to disregard the affidavit purportedly signed by Mr. Austin and its holding that the attorneys’ affidavits were inadmissible based on Wyoming’s professional conduct lawyer-as-witness rule. The Tenth Circuit held that is did not need to consider whether the district courts holding was accurate because even if the information from Mr. Austin’s purported affidavit was considered, it would not have created a material dispute of fact to defeat the Defendant’s assertion of qualified immunity. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that any error by the district court regarding Mr. Austin’s affidavit was harmless.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s state law claims with prejudice. Because the district court did not explain why the defendants were entitled to the state qualified immunity, the Tenth Circuit remanded the issue for further consideration by the district court.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment as to the seizure of the envelope, remanded for further proceedings on the state qualified immunity issue, and affirmed the district courts grant of summary judgment in favor of all Defendants on the remaining claims.

Tenth Circuit: Eleventh Amendment Barred Claims Against Agricultural Employees

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Colby v. Herrick on March 1, 2017.

This case stemmed from a battle between Ms. Colby and her mother over the ownership of a horse. The mother complained to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which sent someone from the Brand Inspection Division to investigate the situation. After investigating, the inspector seized the horse. Ms. Colby and her mother settled the ownership dispute in court and after three years, Ms. Colby prevailed and received the horse back. Ms. Colby and her husband then sued the Division and two of its officers. The district court dismissed the action.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the Division as a defendant in the suit. It held that the Division was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity as an arm of the state and therefore could not be sued in federal court. Further, the Tenth Circuit held that because the Division was an arm of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Colbys could not sue the two officers in their official capacity.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue de novo. The Eleventh Amendment extends to governmental entities that are considered arms of the state. When determining if the Division was an arm of the state, the Tenth Circuit laid out five factors that it considered: (1) how the Division is characterized under Colorado law; (2) how much guidance and control the state of Colorado exercises over the Division; (3) how much funding the Division receives from the State; (4) whether the Division enjoys the ability to issue bonds and levy taxes; and (5) whether the state of Colorado bears legal liability to pay judgments against the Division.

The Tenth Circuit held that the first factor weighed in favor of regarding the Division as an arm of the state. This was due to the fact that Colorado law treats the Division as part of the state government. Additionally, the Division participates in state government as a state agency and the agency’s inspectors are Colorado law enforcement officers with the power to make arrests for violations of state law.

The Tenth Circuit held that the second factor also weighed in favor of regarding the Division as an arm of the state. This was because the Division is considered part of the state Department of Agriculture and is therefore subject to control by state officials.

With regard to the third factor, the Division is entirely self-funded. Additionally, with regard to the fourth factor, the State Board of Stock Commissioners is entitled to issue bonds worth up to $10 million to pay the Division’s expenses. The Tenth Circuit held that these two factors by themselves would cut against Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, the Tenth Circuit held that because the Division is entitled to participate in the Colorado risk management fund, which obtains money from state appropriations, that use of state money supports consideration of the Division as an arm of the state.

The Tenth Circuit held that it was unclear whether the State bears legal liability to pay a judgment of the Division.

Therefore, because the first and second factors clearly support characterization as an arm of the state, and the third and fourth could go both ways, the Tenth Circuit held that the balancing of all of the factors led it to regard the Division as an arm of the state. Therefore, the Division was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in dismissing the claims against the division. However, it did hold that the dismissal with prejudice was a mistake. Because Eleventh Amendment immunity is jurisdictional, the Tenth Circuit held that the dismissal should have been without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue with regards to the Divisions’ two officers on the official-capacity claims for damages. The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to immunity in their official capacitates on behalf of the Division being an arm of the state. Therefore, The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to dismissal on the official-capacity claims for damages. However, just as with the Divisions Eleventh Amendment claim, because Eleventh Amendment immunity is jurisdictional, the district court should have dismissed the claim without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit finally addressed the federal personal-capacity claims against the officers for damages. The district court had dismissed these claims based on timeliness. The Tenth Circuit stated that the Colbys claims had a two year statute of limitations. Further, the Tenth Circuit determined that the suffered damage accrued when the horse was seized on July 22, 2011. That action triggered the statute of limitations period. Because the Colbys did not sue until nearly three years later, the Tenth Circuit held that the claims were time-barred.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the Colbys’ argument that the statute of limitations should not have started until they were denied a timely post-deprivation hearing. The Tenth Circuit held that, even if this claim was accurate, that would only have moved the statute of limitations period six weeks in the future, which would still have resulted in the statute of limitations running out before the suit was filed.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the continued violation doctrine did not apply to this case because the complaint does not base the claim on any acts taking place after July 22, 2011. Though the Colbys did not have their horse for three years, and therefore damages continued that entire period, the wrongful acts occurred only on July 22, 2011. Therefore, the Colbys’ claims against the officers in their individual capacity were time-barred.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit held that the Division and the officers in their official capacities were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, because the district court dismissed these claims with prejudice, the Tenth Circuit remanded them for the limited purpose of directing the district court to make the dismissals without prejudice. Additionally, the remaining federal claims against the officers were properly dismissed based on the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Tenth Circuit: Random Drug Test for County Employee Acceptable When Employee Holds Safety-Sensitive Position

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Washington v. Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas on February 6, 2017.

Roberick Washington was a lieutenant at the Wyandotte Country Juvenile Detention Center in Kansas City, Kansas. The position entailed Washington interacting with residents, conducting disciplinary hearings for residents, driving the County van to take juveniles to the intake assessment center, and being present if a fight broke out. Wyandotte County has a random drug testing policy that applies to employees in “safety sensitive positions.” The county’s Policy on Substance Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Testing lists Washington’s position, “juvenile lieutenant,” as a safety sensitive position. The policy states that a failed drug or alcohol test is grounds for discipline, including discharge.

Sheriff Donald Ash terminated Washington after he tested positive for cocaine following a random drug test. Pursuant to the Human Resource Guide, Washington Appealed Ash’s decision to the administrator of the Juvenile Detention Center. This grievance was denied, and Washington appealed to the County Administrator’s Office. After a hearing, an assistant county administrator upheld the termination. Washington claims that he sought an evidentiary hearing and a name-clearing hearing, but was denied both.

Washington alleged three violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, namely that the drug test was an illegal search in violation of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, he was deprived of his property interest in continued employment without due process, and defendants failed to provide him with a name-clearing hearing. Additionally, Washington claimed the county breached an implied contract created by its written disciplinary policies in violation of state contract law. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all counts.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Washington’s § 1983 claims. Municipalities are not protected by qualified immunity, so to grant summary judgment in favor or a municipality, the pleadings and supporting materials must establish there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A plaintiff must identify an unconstitutional policy that caused the claimed injury in order for a municipality to be liable under § 1983. A plaintiff must establish that the municipal employee causing the harm violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Washington’s claim that the county’s random drug test violated the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause and warrant requirements. Ordinarily, a search must be based on individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. However, when the government asserts a special need beyond ordinary crime detection, the Tenth Circuit has found suspicionless drug testing reasonable if the government’s interests outweigh the individual’s privacy interests. Courts have held that when drug use among the individuals tested would threaten the workplace or public safety, the government’s concerns are real. Additionally, courts have held that random drug tests are effective at detecting and deterring drug use.

The Tenth Circuit held that the county had a legitimate special need because the random drug tests to juvenile lieutenants ensured the safety and welfare of the children housed in the juvenile detention center. The juvenile lieutenant position involved interactions with residents, and drug use would impair his ability to interact with the youth. Additionally, the random testing minimized the possibility that employees would evade detection and maximized deterrence. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit found a legitimate special need for the random drug testing.

The Tenth Circuit then weighed the special need against Washington’s privacy interests to determine if the tests were reasonable. The Tenth Circuit held that as a correctional employee, Washington’s expectation of privacy was diminished. Additionally, the drug testing was minimally invasive, as Washington provided a sample behind a closed door with no supervision.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the county presented two interests that were important enough to justify testing Washington. The first was that Washington was working with juveniles in an educational setting, and an employee’s illegal drug use presented a risk of harm to minors. Second, if an employee has law enforcement duties and access to direct contact with inmates, that employee’s illegal use of drugs presents a significant threat to inmates and the security of the facility. The Supreme Court has held that suspicionless drug testing of employees in certain safety sensitive positions was reasonable. In this case, the county’s policy lists “juvenile lieutenant” as a safety sensitive position. The Tenth Circuit held that this classification was reasonable to Washington’s position based on the duties that he performed. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that in this specific instance, the county’s interests were more important and outweighed Washington’s diminished privacy rights, and thus the random drug test was reasonable. Consequently, neither Sheriff Ash nor the county could be subject to § 1983 liability.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed Washington’s claim that the county’s personnel policies established he had a protected property interest in his continued employment at the Juvenile Detention Center. The Tenth Circuit stated a two-part inquiry to determine whether a plaintiff was denied procedural due process. First, the plaintiff must have a protected interest to which due process is applicable. The second inquiry is whether the plaintiff was afforded an appropriate level of due process.

Here, the Tenth Circuit looked to Kansas state law to determine if Washington had a protected property interest. The Tenth Circuit determined that Kansas law established that public employment is presumptively at-will, and that Washington did not provide evidence to rebut this presumption. The Tenth Circuit held that personnel policies alone were insufficient to create an implied employment contract. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on this claim.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Washington’s claim that he was entitled to a name-clearing hearing because Washington’s pretrial order did not reference any damaged liberty interest.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit holds that because Washington failed to establish that there was an implied employment contract, the county was entitled to summary judgment on his breach of contract claim.

Tenth Circuit: Reasonable Person Would Not Have Felt Free to Leave When Stopped by Officers

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Hernandez on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Phillip Hernandez was charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(1). The district court granted his motion to suppress the evidence, as it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unlawful seizure during his encounter with two police officers. The government appealed, claiming that the court should apply the subsequent decision in Utah v. Streiff, and arguing that the district court failed to properly apply the Spence factors to the seizure.

On October 20, 2014, two police officers observed Phillip Hernandez walking near a construction site in a known high crime area. The uniformed officers asked Hernandez if they could speak to him, and began asking him questions while driving along side him in their marked police car as Hernandez continued walking. The officers eventually asked Hernandez to stop so they could ask him additional questions. While questioning Hernandez, the officers discovered an active warrant against him and that Hernandez was in possession of a firearm. Hernandez filed a motion to suppress the firearm evidence, which the district court granted.

On appeal, the government asserted that the Supreme Court’s decision in Utah v. Streiff should apply to this case. In Streiff, the Supreme Court ruled that courts may admit illegally obtained evidence as long as the link between the evidence and the illegal method is sufficiently remote, in a case where the evidence in question was obtained by police officers who illegally stop someone and later discover an existing warrant against that person. The Tenth Circuit, however, rejected the application of the decision in Streiff, agreeing with Hernandez that the government had waived the right to present this argument as they had failed to assert it at the district court level.

The court next turned to the government’s argument that the lower court improperly applied the Spence factors to Hernandez’s encounter with the two officers because officers are free to approach individuals and question them. The court stated that the crucial test to determine if an unlawful seizure has occurred is if the officer’s conduct would lead a reasonable person under similar circumstances to believe they were not free to ignore the police presence and leave the situation. The court agreed with the district court’s application of the factors enumerated in United States v. Spence, stating that once the police officers asked Hernandez to stop, because there were two uniformed police officers in a police car at night without other witnesses present, a reasonable person would not have felt he could walk away.

Finally, the court addressed if the officers had reasonable suspicion to justify an investigative detention. In considering the reasonableness of the detention, the court looked at if there were “specific and articulable facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts” that gave the officers reasonable suspicion that Hernandez was involved in criminal activity. The court looked at the officer’s stated reasons for suspicion, including that Hernandez was walking near a construction site where there had been prior thefts, Hernandez was in a high crime area, Hernandez chose not to walk on the side of the street with a sidewalk, and Hernandez was dressed in all black clothing and carrying two backpacks. The court ultimately determined that, although the level of suspicion required for a Terry stop is less than that required for an arrest, the circumstances in this case did not rise to the requisite level for the officers to stop Hernandez.

Justice Briscoe dissented, stating that he believed the encounter between Hernandez and the officers was more along the lines of a consensual encounter and did not constitute an unlawful seizure considering the circumstances.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of a motion to suppress the evidence.

Tenth Circuit: District Court has Wide Discretion to Impose Special Conditions of Supervised Release

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Bowers on Friday, February 10, 2017.

Donald Bowers was charged and convicted on two counts of civil contempt in violation of 18 U.S.C § 401(3) for willfully and repeatedly violating a permanent injunction against him stemming from a civil trade secret misappropriation suit. Bowers was sentenced to fifteen months’ incarceration and, following his release, a thirty-six month period of supervised release, during which he would make monthly payments of the remaining amount he owed to the plaintiff in the underlying civil suit. Bowers appealed, claiming that the court erred by imposing payments to the plaintiff in the civil case as part of his supervised release, denying his motion for disclosure of the criminal referral, and sentencing him for a period that exceeded six months.

The underlying civil case did not actually include Bowers himself, but his son Lonny Bowers (Lonny) and the officers of WideBand, who were sued by ClearOne Communications, Inc. for misappropriation of trade secrets. Bowers became involved when he entered into an agreement with the defendants in the case to purchase WideBand’s assets in exchange for money to pay their legal fees. The court issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the transfer of assets to Bowers.

In the civil case against WideBand, the jury returned a verdict against the defendants that included compensatory damages against all the defendants, and punitive damages against two of the WideBand officers (not including Lonny). The day after the verdict in the WideBand case, Bowers filed a statement to perfect a security interest in all of WideBand’s assets. When the court ordered Bowers to appear to show why he was not in contempt for violating the existing temporary restraining order, he failed to appear, and the court determined that he was also subject to the existing restraining order as he acted in concert with the defendants in the WideBand case.

After Bowers failed to appear in multiple contempt hearings and again violated the permanent injunction by setting up and operating DialHD, Inc., a company that used the assets of WideBand, the court issued a memorandum decision and civil contempt order against Bowers for violating the permanent injunction, and directed Bowers to self-surrender for incarceration and pay ClearOne’s reasonable attorney fees and costs. Bowers failed to purge himself of the contempt charge, and the court issued a bench warrant for his arrest. The court rejected both of Bowers’ appeals from the civil cases.

The district court entered a civil judgment against Bowers in an amount of $57,188.61 in attorney fees for violating the permanent injunction, an amount of $22,743.88 to pay ClearOne’s costs and fees from the original ClearOne civil case, and $8,648 in appellate attorney fees in connection with his first appeal in the civil case. In relation to the contempt cases against Bowers, the district court judge who presided over the civil case sent a memo regarding the referral of criminal contempt charges for Bowers to the United States Attorney for the District of Utah, outlining the details of the civil case. A federal grand jury returned an indictment against Bowers for willfully disobeying the permanent injunction and civil contempt order, both in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 401(3). A jury found Bowers guilty on both counts.

Bowers was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment, followed by a term of three years supervised release, during which he would make monthly payments to ClearOne. On appeal, Bowers argued that the district court abused its discretion by ordering him to make monthly payments to ClearOne, denying his motion to compel the government to disclose the criminal referral, and argued that his sentence is illegal because 18 U.S.C. § 402 limits sentences like those Bowers committed to no more than six months.

As to his first contention regarding the imposition of payments as a condition of his supervised release, the court stated that district court has broad discretion to impose special conditions of supervised release, stating that the conditions must only (1) be reasonably related to the nature and history of the defendant’s offense, the deterrence of criminal conduct, the protection of the public from the defendant’s crimes, or the defendant’s educational and other correctional needs; (2) involve no deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary; and (3) be consistent with pertinent policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission. The court rejected Bowers’ argument, stating that the special condition in this case satisfies all of the requisite elements.

Bowers’ second argument on appeal, that the district court erred in denying his motion to discover the criminal referral, was also rejected by the court, as the information in the referral did not contain oral or written statements or other evidence that would render it discoverable under Fed. R. Civ. P. 16. Finally, the court also rejected Bowers’ argument that a sentence of fifteen months for his crimes was illegal under § 402, as he did not raise it at the district court level and therefore waived his right to assert the argument at the appellate level. The court added, however, that even if Bowers had not waived the argument, he still would not be entitled to relief because he was not charged under §402, but under § 401, which does not impose a maximum punishment.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Tenth Circuit: Supreme Court Must Explicitly Hold Case to be Retroactive for Retroactivity to Apply

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Jones on Friday, February 10, 2017.

The Tenth Circuit had to determine if a secondary habeas petition was permissible where the first petition failed. Julius Darius Jones petitioned the court, seeking authorization to file a second capital habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 to assert a claim for relief under the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Hurst v. Florida. The court evaluated Jones’ petition under the gatekeeping requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) and rejected his petition.

Jones was convicted in 2002 of felony murder and sentenced to death. After Jones’ subsequent appeals were rejected, he filed his first habeas petition in 2007 on the grounds of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel, which was denied by the court in 2013, and which denial was affirmed in 2015. In the present matter, Jones wishes to assert that his sentence violates his Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights because the jury was not instructed that for the death sentence to be appropriate, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances of his crime outweighed any mitigating factors.

The court evaluated if Jones was entitled to a secondary habeas petition under § 2244(b)(2)(A), which states that the court may only authorize successive claims when the claim relies on a new constitutional rule of law that was made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, which was not previously available to the claimant.

In rejecting Jones’ petition, the court determined that the case upon which Jones was relying, Hurst v. Florida, (where the court ruled the decision underlying the sentence of death must be found beyond a reasonable doubt) did not warrant retroactivity. The court stated that for a procedural rule of law to be retroactive, the Supreme Court must have explicitly held it to be. Because the Supreme Court has not held the Hurst ruling to be retroactive, the court determined Jones had not met the gatekeeping requirements under § 2244(b).

The Tenth Circuit denied the Motion for Authorization.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Did Not Err in Finding Assault Occurred Despite Poor Quality Evidence

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Henry on Friday, February 3, 2017. Panel rehearing was granted for the sole purpose of adding a footnote; that opinion is available here.

Tremale Henry finished a prison sentence for violating federal drug laws and was under supervised release for five years thereafter. During his five year supervised release, Mr. Henry was found by the district court to be responsible for two separate assaults with a dangerous weapon. The district court sentenced Mr. Henry to a 24-month prison term followed by six further years of supervised release. Mr. Henry argues that the district court impermissibly relied on hearsay when reaching its judgment.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Mr. Henry’s first assault charge. In finding that Mr. Henry committed this assault, the district court relied on statements from a witness, Candace Ramsey. Ms. Ramsey testified that she saw Mr. Henry lunge at his victim with a small object, but that she could not see exactly what that object was. A probation officer then testified that Ms. Ramsey told him before the hearing that she saw Mr. Henry use a knife. The district court apparently credited this hearsay. Additionally, the district court relied on a surveillance video that showed Mr. Henry make rapid movements towards the victim. Although the video quality was poor and a knife could not clearly visible, the district court found that the reaction of the victim was consistent with a violent assault with a dangerous weapon. The district court found that all of these facts taken together established that Mr. Henry committed the first assault with a dangerous weapon.

The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in its finding regarding the first assault. The Tenth Circuit stated that the usual rules of evidence do not apply in revocation hearings, and that the Supreme Court has allowed hearsay into supervised release proceedings. The Tenth Circuit went on to state that Fed. R. Crim. P. 32.1(b)(2)(C) grants a defendant in a revocation hearing the opportunity to question any adverse witness. Additionally, in United States v. Jones, the Tenth Circuit held that the application of Rule 32.1(b)(2)(C) requires a district court to conduct a balancing test to weigh “the defendant’s interests in confronting a witness against the government’s interest in foregoing the witness’s appearance.”

The Tenth Circuit held that neither Rule 32.1(b)(2)(C) nor Jones was applicable with regard to the first instance of the assault charge because the witness was available for cross-examination. Ms. Ramsey did appear at the hearing and Mr. Henry had the chance to question her about her hearsay statement. Additionally, Mr. Henry did not provide evidence to establish that his minimal due process rights were violated.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the second assault charge, which consisted of the stabbing of the victim. The district court relied on out-of-court statements that the victim and the victim’s girlfriend made to a police detective. That detective then relayed the statements to Mr. Henry’s probation officer. Mr. Henry’s probation officer presented these statements at the revocation hearing, but neither the victim, his girlfriend, nor the detective was subject to cross-examination. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Rule 32.1(b)(2)(C) and Jones did apply to this assault charge, and that the district court failed to conduct the balancing test Jones required.

The Tenth Circuit held that the district courts failure to apply the relevant tests was not a harmless error. The Tenth Circuit came to this conclusion because it determined that the district court considered both assault charges when it fashioned its sentence. Therefore, the error was not harmless and the Tenth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court for resentencing.

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.