Estate of George v. City of Rifle.
No. 22-1355. 11/9/2023. D.Colo. Judge Briscoe. Qualified Immunity—Excessive Force—Fourth Amendment—Summary Judgment—Collateral Order Doctrine.
November 9, 2023
In 2009, George pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child, and he completed his sentence. In 2019, a warrant was issued for George’s arrest on charges of sexual exploitation of a child in violation of Colorado law. Later that day, officers from the Rifle Police Department (RPD) visited George’s residence and spoke with his wife, who told them that George carried a firearm at work and at home, and that George recently told her that he “wasn’t going to jail.” That night, RPD officers Ryan and McNeal conducted a traffic stop of George as he exited I-70. When stopped, George’s truck was on a bridge over the Colorado River where there was a steady stream of traffic in both directions. Ryan retrieved his patrol rifle, exited his patrol vehicle, and began commanding George to place his hands outside of the driver’s side window of his truck. George did not comply but got out of his truck and walked toward the rear of his truck and Ryan’s vehicle. Ryan ordered George to stop walking, but instead George continued walking and reached behind his back and retrieved a handgun with an extended magazine that provided for a larger capacity of ammunition. George walked to the bridge’s guardrail, where he demonstrated an intent to shoot himself. The officers repeatedly ordered George to drop his handgun, but George never surrendered possession of his handgun. Eventually, George began walking and then running along the shoulder of the road next to the guardrail toward downtown Rifle and away from the two officers. Ryan shot George twice in the back, and George later died from the wounds. George’s estate and his surviving family members (plaintiffs) filed this 42 USC § 1983 action against the City of Rifle (City), RPD Chief Klein, and RPD Corporal Ryan (collectively, defendants), alleging that they violated George’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive and deadly force against him. Plaintiffs also brought a claim of battery causing wrongful death under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA) against Ryan. Defendants moved for summary judgment on all of the claims asserted against them, with Ryan and Klein also asserting that they were entitled to qualified immunity from the § 1983 excessive force claim. The district court denied defendants’ motion in its entirety.
On appeal, defendants argued that the district court erred in denying Ryan’s motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds with respect to plaintiffs’ § 1983 excessive force claim. On an interlocutory appeal from a denial of qualified immunity, the Tenth Circuit may generally review only questions of law. However, the Tenth Circuit determined that it had jurisdiction to consider the facts de novo, because the district court made a number of statements of purported fact that blatantly contradicted the record. The excessive force claim in this case arose in the context of an arrest, so the Fourth Amendment is implicated, and to establish a constitutional violation, a plaintiff must demonstrate the force used was objectively unreasonable. Here, assessing the reasonableness of the officers’ actions under the totality of the circumstances—an armed fleeing felon who had repeatedly refused to comply with officers’ commands, was determined not to be arrested, and represented a threat of bodily harm to both the officers and the general public—it was objectively reasonable for Ryan to use deadly force against George. Therefore, as a matter of law, Ryan’s action in shooting George was objectively reasonable and did not violate George’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. And because Ryan did not violate George’s Fourth Amendment rights, the Tenth Circuit did not have to consider whether the law was clearly established at the time of the incident. Accordingly, the district court erred in denying Ryan’s motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.
Defendants also challenged the district court’s denial of summary judgment in favor of Klein on his qualified immunity claim. Without an underlying constitutional violation, a claim of supervisory liability must fail. Because as a matter of law Ryan did not violate George’s Fourth Amendment rights, plaintiffs’ § 1983 supervisory liability claim against Klein necessarily lacks merit, so the district court erred in denying Klein’s motion for summary judgment with respect to plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim.
Defendants further contended that the district court erred in denying summary judgment to the City on plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim. The Tenth Circuit concluded that it could properly exercise pendent appellate jurisdiction over that ruling because the record establishes that plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim against the City depends on Ryan having violated George’s constitutional rights. As discussed above, Ryan did not violate George’s Fourth Amendment rights, so plaintiffs’ § 1983 municipal liability claim against the City necessarily fails. Therefore, the district court erred in denying summary judgment in favor of the City.
Lastly, defendants argued that the district court erred in denying summary judgment in favor of Ryan on plaintiffs’ wrongful death claim. The Tenth Circuit initially determined that the collateral order doctrine allowed it appellate jurisdiction over this issue because the summary judgment motion was based on state-law immunity from suit under the CGIA. Here, plaintiffs’ wrongful death claim depends in relevant part on plaintiffs’ allegation that Ryan’s shooting of George was not a reasonable use of force. However, as discussed above, Ryan’s shooting of George was objectively reasonable and did not violate George’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. Further, where, as here, a police officer’s use of deadly force against a fleeing felony suspect was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the officer’s use of force cannot, as a matter of law, be deemed to be in “conscious disregard of the danger” for purposes of the CGIA. Accordingly, the district court erred in denying summary judgment in favor of defendant Ryan on plaintiffs’ wrongful death claim.
The decision denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment was reversed and the matter was remanded with directions to enter summary judgment in favor of defendants on all claims asserted against them.