By Joshua P. Bussen

On March 18, 2015, in a published opinion of the civil case Smith v. Ray, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgement to two police officers who were accused of using of excessive force.  The circuit court found no error in the Eastern District of Virginia’s decision to deny the police officers qualified immunity.

The Use of Excessive Force

On September 21, 2006, a uniformed Virginia police officer was looking for a missing juvenile.  The officer heard that the juvenile might be at a house in Virginia Beach, VA.  When the officer arrived at the house and knocked on the door, the plaintiff Amanda Smith answered.  The officer and Amanda spoke for a little while before she turned to go back inside.  As she opened the door the officer slammed it shut and grabbed Amanda by her arm.  The officer then slammed her to the ground and pressed his knee into her back—resting his full weight on her.  The officer also punched her several times in the ribs and yanked on her ponytail.  Throughout the entire incident, Amanda never resisted.  She did, however, receive multiple visible bruises, a broken rib, shoulder pains, as well as other emotional injuries.

Assault, Battery, and Qualified Immunity

Amanda, the plaintiff, sued the officers for state law assault and battery.  The officers asserted that they were immune from the suit under the qualified immunity doctrine.  Qualified immunity bars suits against officers unless (1) the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, show that the officer violated a federal right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time the violation occurred, such that a reasonable person would have known his conduct was unconstitutional.

Was the Force Required?

The Fourth Circuit stated that “when a plaintiff has alleged that an officer employed excessive force in making an arrest, the federal right is the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures.” In determining if the right was “clearly established,” it articulated that evaluating the reasonableness of an officer’s actions under Fourth Circuit precedent requires a balancing of the individual’s rights against the countervailing governmental interest—a “totality of the circumstances” evaluation.  In this case, the Fourth Circuit found that the officer grabbed Amanda with no provocation and threw her to the ground despite the fact that he only, at the most, suspected her of aiding in the delinquency of a minor—a misdemeanor.  The circuit judges also found that nothing in the record suggested that Amanda resisted arrest or presented any threat to the officers.

The District Court’s Decision Is Affirmed

The Fourth Circuit found that the officer had acted in a completely unreasonable manner in his use of force against Amanda Smith on September 21, 2006.  He threw her to the ground with no provocation or present risk of harm, and continued to treat her violently despite her passive reaction.  Therefore, the circuit court held that the district court was correct to deny the officers’ motion for summary judgement under the qualified immunity doctrine.

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