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Eleventh Circuit finds that Alabama police officers who shot car driver did not violate clearly established law and were entitled to qualified immunity in civil rights excessive force lawsuit

On September 2, 2021, in Underwood v. City of Bessemer, et al., No. 19-13992, the Eleventh Circuit considered a Title 42, § 1983 civil rights excessive force case involving a plaintiff who was shot by two Alabama police officers while driving his car. The district court concluded that the defendant police officers were entitled to qualified immunity for their actions, which they claimed were necessitated by a concern that the plaintiff was attempting to injure them with his vehicle. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the district court’s finding that the was no constitutional violation. Considering the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that a jury reasonably could conclude that plaintiff only accelerated his vehicle after being shot by the officers. However, the district court alternatively explained that even if there was a Fourth Amendment violation, the officers did not violate clearly established law. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with this determination, quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision inSaucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001) to support the conclusion that the officers’ conduct was not “so far beyond the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force that the [officer] had to know he was violating the Constitution even without caselaw on point.” The Eleventh Circuit also affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the City, concluding that so-called Monell liability was inapplicable. See Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The Court noted that Monellliability requires proof that (1) the plaintiff’s constitutional rights were violated; (2) that the municipality had a custom or policy that constituted deliberate indifference to that constitutional right; and (3) that the policy or custom caused the violation. See McDowell v. Brown, 392 F.3d 1283, 1289 (11th Cir. 2004). The Eleventh Circuit pointed out that there was no proof of a pattern or knowledge of improper training, or that the police department had persistently failed to take disciplinary action against officers.

On September 7, 2021, in Tillis, et al. v. Brown, et al., No. 19-15098, the Eleventh Circuit considered a similar appeal in a Title 42, § 1983 civil rights excessive force case involving plaintiffs who were shot by a Georgia police officer while occupying a vehicle involved in a traffic stop. During the stop, which occurred following a high-speed chase, the suspect’s vehicle suddenly went into reverse. The police officer began shooting at the vehicle and continued shooting as the vehicle passed by him in reverse, firing 11 shots before the vehicle came to a halt with its engine still running. The officer then reloaded his pistol and fired another 10 shots at the front of the vehicle.The district court granted the officer’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity as the first 11 shots but denied the summary judgment as to the last 10 shots. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court ruling on the latter issue, concluding that the officer had reason to believe his life was still in danger. In dissent, Judge Pryor argued that the vehicle could not possibly have started forward and swerved to hit the officer based on its turning radius and its angle and distance to the officer.