New excessive force decision

Excessive Force

On May 21, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its opinion in Valderas v. City of Lubbock. The issue in that case was whether Valderas could maintain a Section 1983 claim for the use of excessive force by the police.

Facts of the case.

Lubbock police went to a residence where Valderas was supposed to be buying drugs. Valderas was outside speaking to someone in a car when the police arrived.

Valderas pulled a gun when he saw a car approaching, but, when told that the car was a police car, he threw the gun into the car next to him.

The police officers saw Valderas pull the gun but denied seeing him discard it. One of the officers drew his gun and fired five shots at Valderas, partially paralyzing him.

Valderas files suit.

Proceeding under Section 1983, Valderas took the position that the use of deadly force was confined to the moment of the threat, which he contended ceased when he threw his gun into the car next to him.

The officer that shot him asserted a qualified immunity defense. He argued that his use of force was objectively reasonable because he reasonably believed that Valderas possessed a gun and was a threat to everyone present, including the two innocent bystanders in the car next to Valderas.

The district court agreed with the officer and granted him summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.

Valderas appeals.

Initially, the Fifth Circuit noted that there was conflicting testimony as to what happened during the shooting. Normally, that would preclude a grant of summary judgment.

Yet, there was a video of the events. As the Court explained:

“Although courts view evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, they give greater weight, even at the summary judgment stage, to the facts evident from video recordings taken at the scene.”

“When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.”

The Court then turned to the qualified immunity defense. Although a defendant usually bears the burden of proof as to an affirmative defense, “a good-faith qualified immunity defense alters the usual summary judgment burden of proof. Although we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that a defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity in excessive force cases.

The Fifth Circuit explained that in order to overcome a qualified immunity defense in an excessive force case, the plaintiff must show:

(1) an injury,

(2) which resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and

(3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable based on the information the officers had when the conduct occurred.

The Court continued: “Recognizing 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, the Supreme Court has warned against second-guessing a police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation.”

Accordingly, reasonableness “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

So, “[a]n officer’s use of deadly force is not excessive, and thus no constitutional violation occurs, when the officer reasonably believes that the suspect poses a threat of serious harm.”

Valderas loses his appeal.

Applying this law to the facts of the case, the Fifth Circuit explained that “Valderas admits to pulling a gun from his trousers. He argues, however, that the exercise of deadly force was no longer reasonable once he threw the gun into the vehicle and turned to flee.”

“Contrary to Valderas’s assertions, the video footage does not show that he put his hands up, nor does it show that he was fleeing, when the shots were fired.”

“Given these facts, there is no genuine dispute but that Officer Mitchell’s decision to use deadly force was reasonable under these circumstances. Our circuit has repeatedly held that an officer’s use of deadly force is reasonable when an officer reasonably believes that a suspect was attempting to use or reach for a weapon.”

Thus, the ruling of the district court was affirmed.

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