By Blake Stafford

On March 31, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in Yates v. Terry, a civil case concerning a police officer’s qualified immunity defense against a claim of excessive force.  After being tased three times during a nonviolent traffic stop, Brian Yates (“Yates”) filed an action against the arresting officer, Christopher Terry (“Terry”), asserting, inter alia, excessive force in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Terry filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, which was denied by the district court.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of summary judgment.

Facts & Procedural History

Yates, a first sergeant and Iraq War veteran, was driving on a highway in North Charleston, South Carolina with his mother and brother following in a separate vehicle behind him.  Yates drove past two police cruisers, and one of the cruisers, driven by Terry, pulled out and began to follow him, activating his lights to indicate that Yates should pull over.  When Yates realized that Terry was behind him, he pulled over at a gas station.  At the gas station, Terry requested to see Yates’s driver’s license.  Yates responded that he did not have his driver’s license but that he did have military identification.  Terry then opened Yates’s car door, forced him out of the car, and ordered him to place his hands on the car.  Yates complied.  Terry informed Yates that he was under arrest; however, when Yates questioned him about the basis for the arrest, Terry failed to provide any explanation.  By this time, Yates’s mother and brother had arrived at the gas station.

With Yates’s hands on top of the car and Terry behind him, Yates turned his head to the left, at which point Terry deployed his taser in “probe mode,” whereby two probes are fired from the taser, attached by thin electrical wires, into the skin of the subject, delivering a five-second cycle of electricity as a means to override the subject’s central nervous system.  Yates fell to the ground.  While he was still on the ground and having made no attempt to get up, Terry tased him a second time.  Following the second application of the taser, Yates told his brother to call his commanding officer.  When Yates reached for his cell phone, which was clipped to his waist, Terry tased Yates a third time.  Following these events, other officers arrived on the scene, and Yates was arrested and charged with an excessive noise violation, no license in possession, and disorderly conduct.  All of these charges were nol prossed.

Yates filed, inter alia, a § 1983 excessive force claim against Terry in his individual capacity.  Terry filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.  The district court determined that Terry was not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the first two taser applications as a matter of law, but found that the third taser application was “problematic” in that it would depend on more factual development, including the timing of events surrounding it.  However, the district court held that, as to all three uses of the taser, qualified immunity did not apply, and that defendant Terry was therefore not entitled to summary judgment.  Terry appealed the denial of summary judgment.

Interlocutory Appellate Jurisdiction

Before reaching the merits, the Fourth Circuit first had to determine whether it had jurisdiction over Terry’s interlocutory appeal.  Generally, a district court’s order denying summary judgment based on qualified immunity is immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine.  However, when a district court denies a claim of qualified immunity based on the insufficiency of the facts, then that determination is not immediately appealable—the reviewing court’s jurisdiction only extends to issues of law.  In this case, the district court provided conflicting language in explaining its reasoning for holding that qualified immunity did not apply, first noting that there was a constitutional violation as to the first two taser deployments, then noting that factual development was required for the third.

In this case, the district court provided conflicting language in explaining its reasoning for holding that qualified immunity did not apply, first noting that there was a constitutional violation as to the first two taser deployments, then noting that factual development was required for the third.  However, in evaluating excessive force claims, the Fourth Circuit has a general rule cautioning courts against using a segmented view of the sequence of events where each distinct act of force becomes reasonable given what the officer knew at each point in the progression.  Instead, determining reasonableness of force should be done in full context, with an eye toward the proportionality of the force in light of the totality of the circumstances.  Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined that it had jurisdiction to review the district court’s denial of Terry’s motion for summary judgment.

Qualified Immunity

Turning to the merits, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Terry’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.  Generally, qualified immunity shields government officials from liability for civil damages, provided that their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights within the knowledge of a reasonable person.  To determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, the court must determine (1) whether the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the non-movant, establish that the officer violated a constitutional right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established.

Constitutional Violation: Excessive Force.  The Fourth Circuit first evaluated whether an established constitutional right was violated—in this case, the Fourth Amendment’s bar against the use of excessive force by police officers to effectuate a seizure.  To determine whether the force used was excessive, as opposed to objectively reasonable, courts evaluate the totality of the circumstances in light of three factors: (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and (3) whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.

Here, the Fourth Circuit found that all three factors weighed heavily in Yates’s favor.  First, the Court found that the severity of the crime at issue strongly favored Yates.  It was undisputed that the alleged violations were nonviolent, minor traffic infractions; none amounted to more than a misdemeanor.  Second, the Court found that the evidence did not support any inference that Yates posed an immediate threat to the safety of Terry or others at any time during their encounter.  Yates, who was unarmed, complied with Terry’s initial order to place his hands on the car; however, he was subsequently tased by Terry once for turning his head and a second time for no apparent reason.  The Court noted that Yates was never a danger to Terry at any time during their encounter.  Third, the Court found that, based on the evidence, Yates never attempted to flee or resist Terry’s efforts to detain him—he never attempted to get up after he fell to the ground following the first taser application.  Thus, in light of the totality of the circumstances, the Court held that the level of force used by Terry against Yates was not objectively reasonable and constituted excessive force in violation of Yates’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Clearly Established Right.  Next, the Fourth Circuit determined that Yates’s violated constitutional rights were clearly established at the time of Terry’s conduct, such that a reasonable official would have understood that what he was doing violates that right.  The Court held that it was clearly established—and Terry was thus on fair notice—that a police officer was not entitled to use “unnecessary, gratuitous, or disproportionate force by repeatedly tasing a nonviolent misdemeanant who presented no threat to the safety of the officer or the public and who was compliant and not actively resisting arrest or fleeing.”

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit concluded that, based on the totality of the circumstances, Terry was not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law.  The Court affirmed the district court’s denial of Terry’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

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