The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Browder v. City of Albuquerque on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
After finishing a shift, Sergeant Adam Casaus of the Albuquerque Police Department sped through city streets with his lights and sirens on, driving at an average of 66 miles per hour for 8.8 miles. He sped through a red light at one intersection and hit a car, killing Ashley Browder and causing serious injuries to her sister, Lindsay. Lindsay and her parents brought a § 1983 action in federal court, but Sergeant Casaus urged the district court to deny relief based on qualified immunity. The district court declined to dismiss the case and Casaus appealed.
The Tenth Circuit first noted that the parties did not dispute that Casaus’ conduct fell “under color of state law.” The Browders alleged a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The Tenth Circuit clarified that the alleged violation was a substantive due process claim, evaluating whether the claim was carefully described, whether the right is “fundamental,” and whether the government’s infringement was “direct and substantial,” next turning to the question of whether the government had substantial justification for its actions. Finally, the Tenth Circuit noted that when a state court claim can provide the same relief as a federal § 1983 claim, the federal court should abstain in favor of the state remedial process.
Evaluating the case at hand, the Tenth Circuit found no question that the Ashley’s death and Lindsay’s injuries qualified as direct and substantial impairments of their fundamental right to life, and that Sergeant Casaus’ actions were arbitrary in that they were performed capriciously or at his pleasure and without good reason. Although Casaus claimed he was acting on official business—pursuing a car operating in a dangerous manner—the facts in the complaint expressly contend Casaus was not pursuing official business of any kind. The Tenth Circuit also rejected Casaus’ contention that because he activated his lights and sirens he was not acting recklessly as a matter of law. Casaus argued he did not have time to form a reckless indifference to human life, because the accident occurred 2.5 seconds after he entered the intersection. However, the Tenth Circuit noted he had driven 8.8 miles at high speeds prior to the accident, and therefore he had about 8 minutes before the crash to form the requisite mens rea.
Finally, the Tenth Circuit evaluated whether the law was clearly established at the time of Casaus’ accident. Noting that “some things are so obviously unlawful that they don’t require detailed explanation and sometimes the most obviously unlawful things happen so rarely that a case on point is itself an unusual thing,” the Tenth Circuit found that although there was not much case law regarding officers causing fatal accidents on their own time, the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that when a private person suffers a serious injury due to an officer’s intentional misuse of his or her vehicle a viable due process claim can arise, and the Tenth Circuit ruled in 1996 that a Fourteenth Amendment claim can arise from an officer speeding at 60 miles per hour. The Tenth Circuit also ruled in 2006 that a police officer could be liable under the Fourteenth Amendment for driving recklessly and with deliberate indifference. Taking all these cases together, the Tenth Circuit found ample support that the law was clearly established at the time of the accident.
The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. Judge Gorsuch wrote a concurrence about the preference for tort claims to be resolved under state law rather than federal law.