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ELEVENTH CIRCUIT UPHOLDS USE OF FORCE AFTER PURSUIT

May 2015

by Brian S. Batterton, Attorney



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©2015 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)

On April 15, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Mobley v. Palm Beach Sheriff Dept. et al. [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to the Fourth Amendment and the use of force.  The relevant facts of Mobley, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

On December 12, 2007, Mobley was parked in a West Palm Beach convenience store parking lot, slouched down in the driver's seat of his truck, preparing to smoke crack cocaine. In response to "complaints of high volumes of drug activity" in the area, Deputy Sheriff Jason Bronson of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office was on bicycle patrol with his partner. Bronson, who was in uniform, approached the truck after noticing that it was parked in a handicapped spot and not displaying a handicapped placard.

Mobley did not see Bronson approaching his truck, and from his slouched position in the driver's seat, was unable to see anything that identified Bronson as a police officer. Bronson asked "What are you doing?" Mobley, fearing that he was being "robbed again," dropped his pipe and keyed his truck's ignition. As Mobley was trying to start his truck, Bronson reached through the open driver's side window, grabbed Mobley's shoulder, and tried to open the door. While Bronson was still holding onto him, Mobley backed quickly out of the parking space. In the process of escaping, Mobley struck Bronson with his truck and dragged him approximately 20 feet across the parking lot before Bronson fell clear of the truck.

Mobley fled the parking lot in his truck. As he was driving away, Mobley saw Bronson standing in the parking lot pointing a pistol at Mobley and saw that Bronson was a uniformed police officer. Bronson radioed an alert bulletin that included a description of Mobley and his truck. He stated that Mobley had struck him with the truck, tried to run him over, and fled the scene.

Mobley drove a few blocks away and parked his truck, but a few moments later a police cruiser arrived. Mobley again drove away, and the cruiser followed. By the time Mobley had driven a few blocks several additional cruisers were following him. Mobley drove recklessly and at high speeds while trying to evade the pursuing police. While looking back at the police cruisers, Mobley felt his truck run off the road. He faced forward again in time to avoid striking the trunk of a tree, but the truck struck a tree limb that shattered the windshield and collapsed the truck's roof over the driver's seat. Mobley continued driving a short distance to an open area "out of the traffic" and with "lots of light," where he determined that he would surrender. When he exited his truck (through the passenger door due to the damage on the driver's side), he noticed a small retention pond and for reasons he asserts are unknown even to him waded into its center. By the time he was in the middle of the pond, police had surrounded the pond, and a police helicopter was overhead shining its spotlight on him. Mobley waded out of the pond to the waiting police officers on the western bank of the pond, one of whom grabbed him by the hair and shoved him to the ground, pinning him there and ordering him to surrender his hands to be cuffed. While Mobley was on the ground, the officers struck and kicked him, including in the face. The officers' blows broke Mobley's nose, his teeth, and his plastic dental plate. He covered his face with his hands to protect it from the officers' blows. The officers also tased Mobley repeatedly while he was on the ground. Mobley eventually gave up, moved his hands from in front of his face and placed them behind his back. An officer handcuffed him, after which he was given medical attention.

Mobley contends that eight officers were involved, directly or indirectly, in his arrest. The officers who physically participated in Mobley's arrest were Deputies Elliott, Johnson, and Yoder. Lieutenant Burdick was present at the scene, but he did not physically assist in making the arrest. Deputies Bronson, Sheehan, and Moore, and Sergeant Clapp were not present at the scene of the arrest.

Mobley was taken to St. Mary's hospital, where doctors found that he had a broken nose, cuts and bruises along his arms and hands, and broken front teeth. He later was diagnosed with "Post Traumatic Syndrome" and began suffering seizures. In a state criminal trial arising out of his flight, he was convicted of assaulting Officer Bronson with a deadly weapon and fleeing to elude arrest and was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. [ii]

Mobley filed suit against the Sheriff and deputies and alleged that the deputies used excessive force in effecting his arrest by striking and Tasing him.  The deputies filed for summary judgment and qualified immunity.  The district court held that the deputies’ force used was reasonable and granted summary judgment for the defendants.  Mobley appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The issue on appeal was whether the force used by the officers was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The court then noted several legal principals applicable in this case.  The principals are as follows:

  • Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment "encompasses the right to be free from excessive force during the course of a criminal apprehension." Oliver v. Fiorino, 586 F.3d 898, 905 (11th Cir. 2009). [iii]

  • The right to make an arrest "necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 1871-72 (1989). [iv]

  • We judge excessive force claims "under the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard." Crenshaw v. Lister, 556 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2009) (quotation marks omitted). [v]

  • That standard asks whether the force applied "is objectively reasonable in light of the facts confronting the officer," a determination we make "from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene" and not "with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." Id. [vi]

  • We consider factors including "the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Graham, 490 U.S. at 396, 109 S. Ct. at 1872. We also consider "the need for the application of force, . . . the relationship between the need and amount of force used, and . . . the extent of the injury inflicted." Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1198 (11th Cir. 2002). [vii]

  • The Supreme Court held that the test for excessive force during an arrest is objective reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment. Graham, 490 U.S. at 397, 109 S. Ct. at 1872. "An officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional." Id. [viii]

  • If an officer reasonably, but mistakenly, believed that a suspect was likely to fight back . . . the officer would be justified in using more force than in fact was needed.  Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 129 S. Ct. 808 (2009); Graham, 490 U.S. at 396-97, 109 S. Ct. at 1872 ("The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

Mobley cited two cases which he claimed supported his claim of excessive force.  First, he cited Slicker v. Jackson [ix] in which the plaintiff in that case was already arrested and handcuffed when officers beat his head on the ground and kicked him in the ribs.  This case was not applicable because Mobley was not handcuffed at the time the officers used force. 

Second, Mobley cited Reese v. Herbert [x] in which the court held that, since there was no probable cause to arrest Reese, the officers was not justified in using any force against Reese.  The court stated that when no probable cause exists for an arrest, even the slightest force amounts to excessive force.  However, this case was not applicable to Mobley because there was probable cause to arrest him for very serious offenses. 

Thus, the court looked at the relevant facts of Mobley’s case and noted that Mobley was being arrested for the serious crime of assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon.  Further, Mobley fled in a vehicle and then fled on foot into a pond.  Once officers attempted to handcuff him outside of the pond, Mobley concedes that he refused to surrender his hands.  Lastly, the officers did not use force on Mobley after he surrendered his hands to be handcuffed.  The court then stated:

Our decisions demonstrate that the point at which a suspect is handcuffed and "pose[s] no risk of danger to the officer" often is the pivotal point for excessive-force claims. We have held a number of times that severe force applied after the suspect is safely in custody is excessive. See Galvez v. Bruce, 552 F.3d 1238, 1243 (11th Cir. 2008); Lee, 284 F.3d at 1198; Slicker, 215 F.3d at 1233.  But force applied while the suspect has not given up and stopped resisting and may still pose a danger to the arresting officers, even when that force is severe, is not necessarily excessive. See Crenshaw, 556 F.3d at 1294; cf. Zivojinovich v. Barner, 525 F.3d 1059, 1073 (11th Cir. 2008) (use of taser on a handcuffed suspect was not excessive when officer reasonably believed that suspect "who ha[d] repeatedly ignored police instructions and continue[d] to act belligerently toward police" was spitting blood on him). [xi] [emphasis added]

In light of the facts of Mobley’s case and the legal principals listed above, the Eleventh Circuit held that the deputies did not violate Mobley Fourth Amendment rights because the force used was objectively reasonable.  Therefore, they affirmed the grant of summary judgment and qualified immunity for the deputies.

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Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

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CITATIONS:

[i] No. 13-11972 (11th Cir. Decided April 15, 2015)

[ii] Id. at 2-5

[iii] Id. at 9

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 10

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id. at 11

[ix] 215 F.3d 1225 (11th Cir. 2000)

[x] 527 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2008)

[xi] Mobley at 17

 

 
       
 


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