Police, The Fourth Amendment, Qualified Immunity

Bad police shooting into cars decision from Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice

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One unfortunate, but repeated, fact pattern that comes up in civil cases is one where: (i) police officer(s) ambush a driver in a running car with gun(s) drawn; (ii) the driver doesn’t realize it is police, gets scared, and tries to drive away; and (iii) the officer(s) open fire on the vehicle, often shooting the driver and/or passengers in the vehicle.

I think that this is an unreasonable police practice, and that it is countenanced by the courts in civil cases far too often.

Against that backdrop, here are the fact allegations in a new case:

Stauffer alleges that on March 11, 2011, he and Thomas were parked in his car when the police officers, while in plainclothes and an unmarked car, pulled alongside him for no reason. See Compl. (doc. 1) at ¶¶ 8-12. The police officers exited their car and did not identify themselves. Id. ¶ 13. Stauffer feared he was being carjacked and turned on his car engine and lights. Id. ¶¶ 14-15. The police officers surrounded the car, drawing their guns. Id. ¶ 16. Stauffer put the car in drive, but did not attempt to run the police officers over and none of the officers were injured. Id. ¶¶ 17, 22-23. The police officers, however, “unloaded their firearms” into Stauffer’s car. Id. ¶ 18. Stauffer was shot multiple times in his head and now suffers permanent physical injuries, including blindness and cranial damage. Id. ¶ 20. Thomas was shot in his thigh. Id. ¶ 21.

And here is Magistrate Judge Rice’s awful analysis about what is reasonable in this situation:

As Stauffer concedes, the police officers fired their guns only after they had surrounded Stauffer’s car and Stauffer put the car in drive, i.e., when Stauffer placed them at risk of death or serious bodily injury. See Compl. ¶¶ 16-18. Even if Stauffer did not know that the men approaching him were police officers, his conduct posed a serious risk of danger to the officers, requiring them to act quickly to protect themselves.[6] Similarly, although none of the police officers were seriously injured, the officers could not have known that they would be so fortunate at the time of the incident. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396 (reasonableness inquiry cannot be based on 20/20 vision of hindsight). It also was reasonable for the officers to continue to fire at Stauffer until they were sure they were safely out of harm’s way. See Plumhoff, 134 S. Ct. at 2022.

Criticism: The above analysis focuses too much about what happened after the police officers allegedly put the plaintiffs in an impossible possible, and not enough on the decision of the police officers to cause the driver to fear that he was being carjacked by robbers.

Link to case.

Written by Burgers Allday

February 25, 2015 at 7:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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