850 F.2d 653 (11th Cir. 1988), 87-8682, O'Neal v. DeKalb County, Ga.

Docket Nº:87-8682.
Citation:850 F.2d 653
Party Name:George Washington O'NEAL, Jr., et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, Cross-Appellees, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al., Defendants-Appellees, Cross-Appellants.
Case Date:July 25, 1988
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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850 F.2d 653 (11th Cir. 1988)

George Washington O'NEAL, Jr., et al.,

Plaintiffs-Appellants, Cross-Appellees,


DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al., Defendants-Appellees,


No. 87-8682.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 25, 1988

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James W. Howard, Howard, Secret & Wilde, Atlanta, Ga., for plaintiffs-appellants, cross-appellees.

Albert Sidney Johnson, DeKalb County Attorneys Office, Decatur, Ga., Judson Graves, Alston & Bird, Paul J. Quiner, Wade H. Watson, III, Johnson & Montgomery, Atlanta, Ga., for defendants-appellees, cross-appellants.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Before KRAVITCH and CLARK, Circuit Judges, and NICHOLS [*], Senior Circuit Judge.

KRAVITCH, Circuit Judge:

The survivors of a man killed in a police shootout in DeKalb County, Georgia brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against the officers involved in the shootout, certain county officials, and the County. The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the ground that the decedent's constitutional rights had not been violated and therefore no section 1983 action could be maintained, 667 F.Supp. 853. We affirm.


On the evening of December 15, 1983, the decedent, George Washington O'Neal, Sr., a patient at Doctor's Hospital in DeKalb County, Georgia, went on a rampage through the hospital and stabbed seven people with a pocketknife. 1 Officer Steven

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Waits, a DeKalb County police officer, arrived at the hospital in response to a police call. Waits, armed with his service revolver, found O'Neal on the second floor, holding a bloody knife. Waits identified himself as a police officer and ordered O'Neal to drop his knife. Ignoring Waits's demand, O'Neal ran away down the hallway. As Waits chased O'Neal through the second floor corridors, he observed "a lot of blood on the floor ... a piece of intral [sic] of some kind" and a person with a severe stomach wound lying on the floor. Deposition of Steven W. Waits, at 54. He also noticed that the nursing supervisor had a stab wound in his back. Police Report, Plaintiff's Exhibit 2.

After Waits had chased O'Neal for approximately five minutes, Officer Rick Roseberry, armed with a shotgun, arrived at the hospital to assist Waits. Roseberry also saw "blood all over the floor" and walls and "a piece of human tissue lying there in [sic] the floor in front of me." Deposition of Rickie Emmit Roseberry, at 66. Soon after Roseberry's arrival, the two officers cornered O'Neal at the end of one of the second floor corridors so that O'Neal was standing only six feet from Roseberry and between five and six feet from Waits. With their weapons raised, the officers repeatedly ordered O'Neal to drop his knife and lie on the floor. Instead of complying, O'Neal rushed toward Roseberry with the knife raised over his head; in response, both officers fired their weapons at O'Neal. Although struck by both shots, O'Neal did not fall, but rather twisted around from the force of the shots, still waving his knife above his head. Immediately after the first volley of shots, Roseberry fired a second shot, which hit O'Neal in the small of the back and brought him to the ground. O'Neal died as a result of the gunshot wounds.

O'Neal's survivors brought this section 1983 action against Waits, Roseberry, the Director of Public Safety of DeKalb County, the Chief of Police and Assistant Chief of Police of DeKalb County, and DeKalb County. The complaint alleged that Waits and Roseberry had deprived O'Neal of his constitutional rights by using excessive force against him, and that this use of excessive force was the result of a custom or policy of DeKalb County. 2 Concluding that O'Neal's constitutional rights had not been violated because the officers had not used excessive force, the district court granted summary judgment for all the defendants. In a separate order, the district court denied the defendants' motion for attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. The plaintiffs appeal, arguing that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on the issue of excessive force. The defendants cross-appeal from the denial of attorney's fees.


To succeed on their section 1983 3 claim, the plaintiffs must establish that O'Neal was deprived of a constitutional right. Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 138, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 2692, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979); Shillingford v. Holmes, 634 F.2d 263, 265 (5th Cir. Unit A 1981). The plaintiffs advance two plausible constitutional theories to support their section 1983 action; they assert that the officers' use of force against O'Neal violated his right to substantive due process and his rights under the fourth amendment. 4 We will consider

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these assertions separately. See Gilmere v. City of Atlanta, 774 F.2d 1495, 1499 (11th Cir.1985) (en banc) (analyzing claim of excessive force under both substantive due process and fourth amendment), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1115, 106 S.Ct. 1970, 90 L.Ed.2d 654 (1986).

A. Substantive Due Process

The starting point for any discussion of a substantive due process claim in the context of police abuse is Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 72 S.Ct. 205, 96 L.Ed. 183 (1952), in which the Supreme Court held that incriminating evidence obtained by subjecting a criminal suspect to a stomach pump was inadmissible. As the Court explained, substantive due process is violated when the government engages in actions that " 'offend those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of English-speaking peoples even toward those charged with the most heinous offenses.' " Id. at 169, 72 S.Ct. at 208 (quoting Malinski v. New York, 324 U.S. 401, 416-17, 65 S.Ct. 781, 788-89, 89 L.Ed. 1029 (1945)). In other words, government conduct that "shocks the conscience," id. at 172, 72 S.Ct. at 209, or "offend[s] even hardened sensibilities," id., 72 S.Ct. at 210, transgresses the bounds of substantive due process.

Since Rochin, the lower courts have developed more definite standards for identifying substantive due process violations. In determining whether force used by police officers amounts to a constitutional deprivation, a court must consider " 'the need for the application of force, the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used, the extent of the injury inflicted, and whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.' " Gilmere v. City of Atlanta, 774 F.2d 1495, 1500-01 (11th Cir.1985) (en banc) (quoting Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1033 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1033, 94 S.Ct. 462, 38 L.Ed.2d 324 (1973)), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1115, 106 S.Ct. 1970, 90 L.Ed.2d 654 (1986).

The plaintiffs' substantive due process argument is two-tiered. First, they maintain that the use of gunfire against a suspect armed only with a knife was constitutionally excessive because less harmful methods of apprehension were available. Second, they argue that assuming the first volley of gunfire was constitutional, Roseberry's second shot was not. We reject both parts of the plaintiffs' argument.

Unquestionably, the situation at Doctor's Hospital on the evening of December 15, 1983 suggested the need for the application of force. O'Neal had just stabbed several people and, at the time he was shot, was charging at Roseberry with his knife raised over his head. He refused to respond to the officers' demands that he surrender, leaving them with the definite impression that force was required to stop him from hurting Roseberry or someone else. Moreover, the amount of force used did not exceed the need for the use of force. The plaintiffs maintain that O'Neal's rights were violated because the officers could have disarmed him by negotiating with him or by using a baton or stungun, instead of resorting to gunfire. However, they point to no authority holding that the Constitution requires police officers to use a minimum of force to apprehend a violent, dangerous suspect who is threatening the lives of the officers and others nearby. In this case, the use of gunfire to disarm O'Neal was not excessive

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in light of the obvious danger he posed to the lives of others. In addition, the undisputed evidence demonstrates that the officers fired their guns in a good faith effort to stop O'Neal, not out of a malicious desire to cause harm. Although the injury inflicted was the worst possible, death, the result of the use of force is but one factor to be considered in determining if such force was excessive. Despite the tragic outcome of Waits's and Roseberry's encounter with O'Neal, we remain convinced that they did not use excessive force in attempting to subdue him. In short, their reaction to O'Neal's violent behavior does not "shock[] the conscience" or "offend ... hardened sensibilities." Rochin, 342 U.S. at 172, 72 S.Ct. at 209-10.

Our opinion does not change because Roseberry fired a second shot at O'Neal. As the plaintiffs admitted in their brief and at oral argument, Roseberry fired his second shot "immediately" after his first, and at the time of the second shot, O'Neal was still on his feet, holding his knife and spinning from the force of the first volley of shots. These undisputed facts convince us that Roseberry's second shot was part of his initial reaction to O'Neal's attempt to stab him, and not, as the plaintiffs would have us believe, a brutal, gratuitous use of force against a visibly disabled suspect. 5 Viewed as part of his initial reaction to O'Neal's attack, and in light of the unusual circumstances facing the officers that evening, Roseberry's firing of two shots in rapid succession in an attempt to guarantee O'Neal's apprehension did not constitute excessive force. 6


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