May 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Pointing Firearm at Suspect Not Excessive Force; Officer Had Probable Cause to Believe Suspect Stole Vehicle

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Henry v. City of Albuquerque on Friday, September 30, 2011.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Petitioner’s complaint arose from a night-time police stop. Petitioner, who is African-American, was pulled over in a rental vehicle, ordered out, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a marked police vehicle. After an investigation, officers realized that the rental vehicle driven by Petitioner had been erroneously reported as stolen and he was released. Petitioner alleges that he was singled out because of his race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, including handcuffs that were too tight, rude language, and weapons aimed at him. The district court granted Respondents’ motion for judgement as a matter of law (JMOL) and found that that Respondent officers had not engaged in racial profiling and that they had not used excessive force. On appeal, Petitioner challenges the district court’s grant of JMOL.

The Court agreed with the district court’s determinations. When one officer makes the decision to check license plates, another officer cannot be found to have participated and allegedly done so based on the driver’s race; no reasonable jury could conclude that the second officer had racially profiled Petitioner by deciding to run his license plates based on his race. Additionally, Petitioner presented no precedent that pointing a firearm at a suspect, without more, constitutes excessive force; the officer “had probable cause to believe [Petitioner] had stolen a vehicle, a felony. [The officer] could reasonably conclude that the driver posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers and the public—a driver caught with a stolen vehicle has strong incentive to evade arrest, given the seriousness of the crime.”

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