Crocker v. Beatty, 18-14682

Decision Date20 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. 18-14682,18-14682
Citation995 F.3d 1232
Parties James P. CROCKER, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. Deputy Sheriff Steven Eric BEATTY, Martin County Sheriff's Office, in his individual capacity, Defendant - Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Ralph Goldberg, Goldberg & Cuvillier, PC, Tucker, GA, Guy Bennett Rubin, Todd Norbraten, Rubin & Rubin, STUART, FL, for Plaintiff-Appellant James P. Crocker.

Bruce Robert Bogan, Hilyard Bogan & Palmer, PA, Orlando, FL, Richard A. Giuffreda, Purdy Jolly Giuffreda Barranco & Jisa, PA, Fort Lauderdale, FL, Melissa Jean Sydow, Underwood Murray, PA, Tampa, FL, for Defendant-Appellee Steven Eric Beatty.

Adriana Jisa, Richard A. Giuffreda, Christy M. Imparato, Purdy Jolly Giuffreda Barranco & Jisa, PA, Fort Lauderdale, FL, for Defendant-Appellee Martin County Sheriff.

Richard A. Giuffreda, Christy M. Imparato, Purdy Jolly Giuffreda Barranco & Jisa, PA, Fort Lauderdale, FL, for Defendant-Appellee Robert Crowder.

Before MARTIN, NEWSOM, and JULIE CARNES, Circuit Judges.

NEWSOM, Circuit Judge:

When Deputy Sheriff Steven Beatty arrived at the scene of a fatal car crash on I-95 in south Florida, he saw James Crocker standing in the median taking photos of the accident with his phone. Beatty seized Crocker's phone and told him to drive away. When Crocker refused to leave without his phone, Beatty arrested him and left him in a hot patrol car for about 30 minutes. Crocker sued, alleging that Beatty violated his rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments and Florida law. The district court granted Beatty summary judgment on all of Crocker's claims save one, on which Crocker later prevailed at trial. Crocker now appeals the district court's order.

We affirm. In particular, we hold (1) that Crocker's First Amendment claim is barred by qualified immunity, (2) that his false-arrest claims fail because Beatty had probable cause to arrest him, and (3) that his excessive-force claim fails on the merits and, in any event, is barred by qualified immunity.


Facts first.1 James Crocker was driving north on I-95 through Florida when he saw an overturned vehicle in the median. Crocker pulled over to the shoulder and got out of his car to see if he could help. Ten to fifteen other people did the same. As law-enforcement and emergency personnel began to arrive, Crocker and the other onlookers moved away. Crocker then stood 40–50 feet from the accident scene and about 125 feet from his own vehicle. Crocker and other bystanders took pictures of the scene with their phones.

Martin County Deputy Sheriff Steven Beatty approached Crocker and confiscated his phone—Crocker says "without warning or explanation." When Crocker asked whether it was illegal to photograph the accident scene, Beatty replied: "[N]o, but now your phone is evidence of the State." Beatty instructed Crocker to drive to a nearby weigh station to wait. Crocker didn't leave; instead, he offered to delete the pictures from his phone. Beatty again told Crocker to go to the weigh station and that someone from the Florida Highway Patrol would follow up with him about his phone. Crocker again refused, telling Beatty: "I've been a law-abiding citizen of this town for 20 something years, [and] I deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

At that point, Beatty informed Crocker that he was under arrest for resisting an officer. Crocker then offered to leave—but, he said, not without his phone. Beatty handcuffed Crocker and escorted him toward his patrol car. Along the way, Crocker told Beatty: "[S]ir, I've been personal friends with [Sheriff] Will Snyder over 25 years, I employ over a hundred people in this town, [and] I've never broken the law." Beatty responded: "I don't care who you know or how many people you employ, you're going to jail." After placing Crocker in the patrol car, Beatty turned off the air conditioning.2 Outside, it was about 84° Fahrenheit,3 and inside the patrol car, Crocker became hot and uncomfortable. He sweated profusely, experienced some trouble breathing, and felt anxious. Beatty left Crocker for a short while, and when he returned to the car Crocker begged for air and said he was "about to die." Beatty responded, "[I]t's not meant to be comfortable sir," and left Crocker where he was.

Sometime later, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper came by, opened the car's door, and asked Crocker for his driver's license. Crocker pleaded with her for help, too. Shortly thereafter, Crocker says, the trooper spoke to Beatty, who returned to the car and turned the AC back on.

In total, Crocker was left in the hot patrol car for somewhere between 22 and 30 minutes, after which Beatty drove him to the local jail. County officials eventually released Crocker, returned his phone to him, and dropped the "resisting an officer" charge. Crocker didn't seek any medical attention in the aftermath of his arrest.4


Crocker sued Beatty and Martin County Sheriff William Snyder under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As relevant here, Crocker alleged violations of his rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments on the grounds that Beatty (1) prevented him from taking photographs of government officials, (2) seized his phone and falsely arrested him, and (3) used excessive force during the arrest. Crocker separately challenged his arrest under Florida law.

The district court granted Snyder's motion for summary judgment in its entirety and granted Beatty's motion on qualified-immunity grounds with respect to all of Crocker's claims except the one alleging that his phone was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Crocker filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court denied.

Beatty filed an interlocutory appeal of the district court's order denying him qualified immunity on the phone-seizure claim, but this Court affirmed. Crocker v. Beatty , 886 F.3d 1132, 1138 (11th Cir. 2018). Crocker prevailed on that claim at trial, and the jury awarded him $1,000 in damages.

Crocker then appealed the district court's summary judgment order granting Beatty qualified immunity on the First Amendment, false-arrest, and excessive-force claims, which became final when judgment was entered following the jury verdict. This is Crocker's appeal.


Before us, Crocker presents three issues. He contends that the district court shouldn't have granted summary judgment to Beatty on (1) his First Amendment claim, (2) his Fourth Amendment and state-law false-arrest claims, or (3) his Fourteenth Amendment excessive-force claim. Because the district court rejected each claim on qualified-immunity grounds, we will begin with an overview of how qualified immunity works.5


Qualified immunity "shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’ " Mullenix v. Luna , 577 U.S. 7, 11, 136 S.Ct. 305, 193 L.Ed.2d 255 (2015) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) ). When qualified immunity applies, it is "an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability." Mitchell v. Forsyth , 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). The doctrine shields "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Gates v. Khokhar , 884 F.3d 1290, 1296 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd , 563 U.S. 731, 743, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) ).

"To receive qualified immunity, the officer must first show that he acted within his discretionary authority." Lewis v. City of W. Palm Beach , 561 F.3d 1288, 1291 (11th Cir. 2009). It's undisputed here that Beatty was acting within his discretionary authority, so it falls to Crocker to "show that qualified immunity should not apply." Id. To do so, Crocker must allege facts establishing both (1) that Beatty violated a constitutional right and (2) that the relevant right was "clearly established" at the time of the alleged misconduct. Jacoby v. Baldwin Cnty. , 835 F.3d 1338, 1344 (11th Cir. 2016). We can affirm a grant of qualified immunity by addressing either prong or both. Pearson , 555 U.S. at 236, 129 S.Ct. 808.

On the second prong, only decisions of the United States Supreme Court, this Court, or the highest court in a state can "clearly establish" the law. Gates , 884 F.3d at 1296. Because only clearly established law gives an officer "fair notice that her conduct was unlawful," Brosseau v. Haugen , 543 U.S. 194, 198, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (2004), the Supreme Court has held that the contours of the constitutional right at issue "must be sufficiently clear [so] that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right," Hope v. Pelzer , 536 U.S. 730, 739, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) (quotation marks omitted).

Under this Court's precedent, a right can be clearly established in one of three ways. Crocker must point to either (1) "case law with indistinguishable facts," (2) "a broad statement of principle within the Constitution, statute, or case law," or (3) "conduct so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly violated, even in the total absence of case law." Lewis , 561 F.3d at 1291–92. Although we have recognized that options two and three can suffice, the Supreme Court has warned us not to "define clearly established law at a high level of generality." Plumhoff v. Rickard , 572 U.S. 765, 779, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 188 L.Ed.2d 1056 (2014) (quotation marks omitted). For that reason, the second and third paths are rarely-trod ones. See Gaines v. Wardynski , 871 F.3d 1203, 1209 (11th Cir. 2017) (collecting cases). And when a plaintiff relies on a "general rule[ ]" to show that the law is clearly established, it must "appl[y] with obvious clarity to the circumstances." Long v. Slaton , 508 F.3d 576, 584 (11th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks omitted; emphasis added); see also Youmans v. Gagnon , 626 F.3d 557, 563 (11th Cir. 2010) ("[I]f a plaintiff relies on a...

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