508 F.3d 576 (11th Cir. 2007), 06-14439, Long v. Slaton

Docket Nº:06-14439.
Citation:508 F.3d 576
Party Name:Robert R. LONG, Kelly L. Long, as Personal Representatives of the Estate of Bryan L. Long, deceased, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Jimmie Ray SLATON, Jr., Ronnie Willis, Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:November 16, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 576

508 F.3d 576 (11th Cir. 2007)

Robert R. LONG, Kelly L. Long, as Personal Representatives of the Estate of Bryan L. Long, deceased, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Jimmie Ray SLATON, Jr., Ronnie Willis, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 06-14439.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.

November 16, 2007

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D. C. Docket No. 06-01014-CV-3-IPJ

Page 577

Bart Gregory Harmon, Kendrick Emerson Webb, Charles Richard Hill, Jr., Webb & Eley, P.C., Montgomery, AL, for Defendants-Appellants.

John Allen Brinkley, Brinkley & Chestnut, Huntsville, AL, Marc H. Bardack, Bovis, Kyle & Burch, LLC, Atlanta, GA, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

Page 578

Before EDMONDSON, Chief Judge, HULL, Circuit Judge, and FORRESTER,[*]District Judge.

EDMONDSON, Chief Judge.

This appeal involves deadly force, the Fourth Amendment, and qualified immunity. Jimmie Slaton ("Deputy Slaton" or "Slaton") and Ronnie Willis ("Sheriff Willis" or "Willis") (collectively, "Defendants") appeal the district court's denial of their motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds this section 1983 suit arising out of the death of Bryan Long ("Long"). Dr. Robert R. Long ("Long's father") and Kelly Long (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), representatives of Long's estate, filed suit against Defendants in their individual capacities. Plaintiffs' complaint alleges that Deputy Slaton shot and killed Long in violation of Long's "civil rights."1 Because we conclude that Plaintiffs' complaint fails to state a claim for a violation of Long's Fourth Amendment rights and that the applicable law was not already clearly established at the pertinent time, we reverse the district court's order.

I. Background

The complaint alleges these facts. In May 2005, Long's father, a medical doctor, went to the Lauderdale County Probate Court seeking to have Long committed to a hospital because Long was suffering from a "psychotic episode." But Long's father was unable to have Long committed because of a lack of available hospital beds. While returning to his residence, 2 Long's father called the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department and requested assistance due to Long's psychosis. Upon arrival at his home, Long's father waited in his vehicle for help to arrive.

Deputy Slaton responded to the call and arrived at the Long residence shortly thereafter. Slaton, who was alone, got out of his marked sheriff's cruiser, 3leaving the keys in the ignition and the driver's door open. Slaton then spoke to Long's father, who explained his desire that Long be detained due to Long's psychosis. When Deputy Slaton asked Long's father if Long had been physically violent with him, the father responded, "no."

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Deputy Slaton then approached Long, who was at the end of the driveway, close to the house. Slaton pulled out handcuffs and told Long that Slaton would take Long to jail. Long voiced his disagreement and then ran over to and got inside Slaton's cruiser and closed the door. Slaton then ran to the driver's side of the cruiser, pointed his pistol at Long, and ordered Long to get out of the cruiser. Deputy Slaton threatened to shoot Long if Long did not comply. Long then shifted the cruiser into reverse and began backing away and down the driveway toward the road. Slaton stepped into the middle of the driveway and fired three shots at Long as the sheriff's cruiser moved away. One shot went through the windshield and struck Long in the chest. The cruiser stopped as it rolled into an embankment, and Long died after about a minute. At the time, backup law enforcement was en route.4

II. Discussion

We review de novo a trial court's denial of a motion to dismiss a complaint on qualified immunity grounds.5 Snider v. Jefferson State Cmty. Coll., 344 F.3d 1325, 1327 (11th Cir. 2003). In determining whether Plaintiffs' complaint alleges the violation of a clearly established right, we accept the allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the Plaintiffs. Id. We first ask whether a constitutional violation occurred; we then ask whether the violation was already clearly established by the law at the time. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 2156, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001).

A. Excessive Force and the Fourth Amendment

We first examine whether Deputy Slaton's use of deadly force was excessive

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and violated the Fourth Amendment. The standard for whether the use of force was excessive under the Fourth Amendment is one of "objective reasonableness." See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 1867-68, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). "The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." Id. at 1872.

In the context of deadly force, the Supreme Court has set out examples of factors that justify the use of such force:

Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon . . . deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given.

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 1701, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985). Garner says something about deadly force but not everything, especially when facts vastly different from Garner are presented. The Supreme Court has cautioned that "Garner did not establish a magical on/off switch that triggers rigid preconditions whenever an officer's actions constitute 'deadly force.' " Scott v. Harris, --- U.S. ----, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1777, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007).

Because "[t]he test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application," Graham, 109 S.Ct. at 1872 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979)) (alteration in original), we must "slosh our way through the fact bound morass of 'reasonableness.' " Scott, 127 S.Ct. at 1778. Therefore, determining whether "the use of a particular type of force in a particular situation" is "reasonable" in the constitutional sense6 requires a court to "balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion." Scott, 127 S.Ct. at 1777, 1778 (quoting United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 103 S.Ct. 2637, 2642, 77 L.Ed.2d 110 (1983)).

In examining whether an officer's use of deadly force is reasonable, we recognize 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." Graham, 109 S.Ct. at 1872. So "[w]e are loath to second-guess the decisions made by police officers in the field." Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1331 (11th Cir. 2003).

Accepting the facts as alleged in the complaint as true, we conclude that Deputy Slaton's force was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Although Slaton's decision to fire his weapon

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risked Long's death, that decision was not outside the range of reasonableness in the light of the potential danger posed to officers and to the public if Long was allowed to flee in a stolen police cruiser. "[U]nder the law, the threat of danger to be assessed is not just the threat to officers at the moment, but also to the officers and other persons if the chase went on." Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1280 n.12 (11th Cir. 2002). "[T]he question then is whether, given the circumstances, [Long] would have appeared to reasonable police officers to have been gravely dangerous." Id. at 1281. Considering the circumstances surrounding the shooting, including the threat posed by Long's condition and behavior, this question must be answered "yes."

We stress these facts: Long was mentally unstable; and he had taken control of not just any vehicle, but a police cruiser. This police cruiser was marked as a Lauderdale County Sheriff's patrol car and was equipped with a flashing light bar on the roof, two police radios, and other emergency equipment. Under Alabama law, a motor vehicle is, at least, potentially a "dangerous instrument" -- that is, an instrument "highly capable of causing death or serious bodily injury." Ala. Code § 13A-1-2(5). Different from other vehicles, this fully marked and fully equipped police cruiser had an even greater potential for causing -- either intentionally or otherwise -- death or serious bodily injury.

Even if we accept that the threat posed by Long to Deputy Slaton was not immediate in that the cruiser was not moving toward Slaton when shots were fired, 7 the law does not require officers in a tense and dangerous situation to wait until the moment a suspect uses a deadly weapon to act to stop the suspect. See Pace, 283 F.3d at 1282 (concluding at the...

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