Dismukes v. Hackathorn

Decision Date13 August 1992
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. EC 90-149-D-O.
Citation802 F. Supp. 1442
PartiesTheodore DISMUKES and Pinkie Stratton, Plaintiffs, v. Bruce E. HACKATHORN; Starkville Police Department; Sergeant Todd Salmon, in his individual capacity and as a member of the Starkville Police Department; Bud Maxey, in his individual capacity and as the Chief of the Starkville Police Department City of Starkville; R.L. McDavid, as the Mayor of the City of Starkville; Bob Smith, Ed Buckner, Mary Lee Beal, Wendall Gibson, Emmett Smitherman, Melvin Rhodes, and Harold Williams, as Aldermen of the City of Starkville, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Mississippi


William E. Ready, Jr., Meridian, Miss., for plaintiffs.

William T. Siler, William C. Brabec, T. Keith Ball, Jackson, Miss., for defendants.


DAVIDSON, District Judge.

A high-speed police pursuit provides the impetus for this civil rights action, framed within 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs allege excessive force was used to apprehend a traffic offender in violation of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.2 In response, defendants move this court for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Based on its review of the evidentiary materials supporting and opposing the motion, the court concludes no reasonable juror could find plaintiffs are victims of a constitutional deprivation.3 Set out below is the court's opinion.

I. Summary of the Facts

Defendant Todd Salmon, a Starkville police officer, observed the driver of a 1988 Chevrolet Beretta, Bruce E. Hackathorn, pass on a double yellow line, travelling at eighty m.p.h. in a forty m.p.h. zone.4 Thereupon, a high-speed pursuit of the traffic offender through a largely residential area ensued for ninety seconds. The chase ended when Hackathorn, disregarding a red traffic light, collided with a motor vehicle containing plaintiffs.5 As a result of the collision, plaintiffs sustained personal injuries and property damage. The Starkville Police Department has no official policy regarding high-speed police pursuits; the matter is left to the discretion of the individual officer. Nothing in the facts indicates Starkville has a history or pattern of conducting high speed chases that end in traffic accidents.

II. Legal Discussion

Section 1983, in and of itself, creates no substantive rights. Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 816, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 2432, 85 L.Ed.2d 791, 800 (1985) (citing Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979)). The mere assertion that defendants violated a plaintiff's rights under § 1983 is inadequate. Easterling v. Glennville, 694 F.Supp. 911, 917 (S.D.Ga.1986). It is evident from the statutory language6 that § 1983 merely serves as a vehicle for vindicating federal rights arising from the Constitution or laws of the United States. Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 917. In any § 1983 lawsuit, the first inquiry always is whether plaintiff has been deprived of a right secured by the "Constitution and laws." Shillingford v. Holmes, 634 F.2d 263, 265 (5th Cir.1981). "Section 1983 imposes liability for violations of rights protected by the Constitution, not for violations of duties of care arising out of tort law." Shillingford, 634 F.2d at 265 (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 138 & 146, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 2692 & 2695, 61 L.Ed.2d 433, 439 (1979).

Thus, before turning to defendants summary judgment arguments, the court combs through plaintiffs' § 1983 complaint in search of specific, alleged constitutional violations7, and finds two federal claims for the use of excessive force; plaintiffs contend defendant's high-speed police pursuit of the traffic offender, Hackathorn, impinged their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. To determine whether plaintiffs have a viable § 1983 complaint, the court considers the applicability of these Amendments within the context of high speed police pursuits.

A. The Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Claim

Section 1983 complaints must embrace more than a generic, amorphous claim of due process8 violations. Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 917. Vague, nebulous due process claims are too broad, given the complexities inherent in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, from which three distinct constitutional protections originate. Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 917. First of all, the constitutional provision incorporates specific protections outlined in the Bill of Rights. Id. Of the two remaining protections, procedural due process and substantive due process, plaintiffs contend they suffered a substantive due process violation; they do not advance a procedural due process claim. Before beginning its discussion of substantive due process, however, the court briefly addresses procedural due process to determine whether such a claim could proceed in plaintiffs' case.

1. Procedural Due Process

Claims of procedural due process violations are not cognizable in federal court if adequate post-deprivation state tort remedies exist. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981) (overruled on other grounds9 in Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330, 106 S.Ct. 662, 664, 88 L.Ed.2d 662, 668 (1986)). See Gilmere v. Atlanta, 737 F.2d 894 (11th Cir.1984), on rehearing, 774 F.2d 1495 (11th Cir.1985) (en banc), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1124, 106 S.Ct. 1993, 90 L.Ed.2d 673 (1986). The holding of Parratt states that a random and unauthorized deprivation of property by a state employee does not amount to a due process violation cognizable under § 1983, if the state provides a meaningful post-deprivation remedy. Parratt, 451 U.S. at 544, 101 S.Ct. at 1917, 68 L.Ed.2d at 434.10 Reluctant to convert the Fourteenth Amendment into a sea of tort law, the Court relegated a prisoner's action over the loss of his $23.50 hobby kit to a tort suit in state court. While Parratt did not intend for all § 1983 claims to be transformed into state tort actions whenever possible, the case has been construed in the neighboring 11th Circuit as an indication that procedural due process deprivations do not occur until procedure for redress is denied in the state system. Gilmere v. Atlanta, 774 F.2d 1495, 1499 (11th Cir. 1985) (en banc). In this way, procedural due process claims are distinguishable "from other constitutional violations that are complete, regardless of the subsequent adjudicative procedures" that are used. Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 918.

Applying this precept to the instant case, it is obvious that a claim of deprivation of procedural due process cannot proceed, since plaintiffs have adequate post deprivation state tort remedies to pursue a recovery for their injuries. "A complaint does not state a valid procedural due process objection—and a valid § 1983 claim—if it does not include a challenge to the fundamental fairness of the State's procedures." Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 339, 106 S.Ct. 662, 679, 88 L.Ed.2d 662, 673 (1986) (Stevens, J., concurring). Therefore, if plaintiffs have a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, it is for a denial of substantive due process rights.

2. Substantive Due Process

In view of the fact that plaintiffs were not the parties who were the target of the police chase, and their injuries are not commonly viewed as a seizure, the issue of this case initially appears to be one of substantive due process. Due to the Supreme Court's holding in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989), however, plaintiffs' claim of excessive force cannot be sustained under a substantive due process analysis. Johnson v. Morel, 876 F.2d 477, 480 (5th Cir.1989) (diverging from Shillingford, 634 F.2d at 263). Graham calls for all excessive force claims "arising in the context of an arrest" to be reviewed under a Fourth Amendment Analysis. Graham, 490 U.S. at 394, 109 S.Ct. at 1871, 104 L.Ed.2d at 454 (disapproving Shillingford, 634 F.2d at 263).11

In many ways, substantive due process is a complete legal mystery. "As a historic and generative principle," substantive due process is indefinable. Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 920 (quoting Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 173, 72 S.Ct. 205, 210, 96 L.Ed. 183 (1952)). Therefore, any specific pronouncement regarding its applicability is welcomed. Thus, it is assuring to at least know that Graham, renders the abstruse legal principle inapplicable in cases which allege use of excessive force in the course of an arrest or stop. Graham, 490 U.S. at 394, 109 S.Ct. at 1870, 104 L.Ed.2d at 454. Nonetheless, a substantive due process claim is raised in plaintiffs' complaint, albeit within the context of excessive force in the form of a police chase.12 Therefore, the court devotes some of its discussion to the esoteric notion of substantive due process, in search of some other form of governmental deprivation outside the realm of excessive force, where substantive due process may be relevant. See Britt v. Little Rock Police Dept., 721 F.Supp. 189, 191 (E.D.Ark.1989) (culpable deprivation of life, liberty or property by one acting under color of state law, could be viewed as substantive due process violation).

The "substantive" component of the due process clause, generally known as "substantive due process," bars certain arbitrary government actions, even if their implementation is fair. See Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 920 (even the most stringent procedural safeguards will not shield certain governmental conduct from amounting to a substantive due process violation). Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 919. It is violated when the government engages in actions which "`"offend those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of justice of English-speaking peoples (sic) even towards those charged with the most heinous offenses."'" Easterling, 694 F.Supp. at 920 (quoting Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 169, 72 S.Ct. 205, 208, 96 L.Ed. 183, 188 (1952) quoting Malinski v. New...

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