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Helvie v. Jenkins.

No. 22-1187. 5/9/2023. D.Colo. Judge Ebel. Traffic Stop—Fourth Amendment—Qualified Immunity—Summary Judgment.

May 9, 2023

Deputy Jenkins was traveling alone shortly before midnight when he observed Helvie commit several traffic infractions. Deputy Jenkins stopped Helvie’s truck, which was carrying two additional passengers. Helvie’s window was partially down when Deputy Jenkins approached the truck, and Deputy Jenkins reported smelling the strong odor of burnt marijuana coming out of the window. Helvie denied drinking or smoking, refused to answer Deputy Jenkins’s question about white powder he observed in Helvie’s lap, and then rolled up the window. Deputy Jenkins opened the driver’s side door, but Helvie refused to get out of his truck when the deputy ordered him out. Deputy Jenkins then grabbed Helvie’s arm and again ordered him out of the vehicle. Helvie pulled away, and Deputy Jenkins grabbed Helvie’s leg and pulled him out of the vehicle, causing Helvie to land on his back. As Deputy Jenkins was pulling Helvie out of the vehicle, he observed a handgun in the pocket of the driver’s side door. Helvie was charged with nine criminal offenses but ultimately pleaded guilty to speeding, and the rest of the charges were dropped. Helvie subsequently sued Deputy Jenkins under 42 USC § 1983, alleging that he violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against him. Deputy Jenkins moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court granted the motion.

On appeal, Helvie argued that the district court erred by failing to view the evidence in the light most favorable to him because it accepted as true the fact that Deputy Jenkins saw the gun in the driver’s door pocket as he was pulling Helvie from his truck. Here, the only direct evidence that Deputy Jenkins saw the gun was his incident report and his sworn deposition, but there was not sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that these statements were not credible. Therefore, the district court did not err.

The Tenth Circuit then considered the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The Tenth Circuit analyzed qualified immunity to determine whether Helvie showed that Deputy Jenkins (1) violated the Fourth Amendment by using unreasonable force against him, and (2) violated Helvie’s clearly established constitutional rights. As to the first prong, under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, officers conducting traffic stops can order drivers to exit their vehicles and can use reasonable force to execute those orders. Under Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989), the reasonableness of the force an officer used to seize a person is assessed according to (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and (3) whether the suspect actively resisted arrest or attempted to evade arrest by flight. Here, Helvie quickly escalated the situation, requiring the deputy to use additional force to overcome his resistance to being removed from his truck; the circumstances raised sufficient safety concerns; and Helvie resisted arrest. Helvie thus failed to establish that Deputy Jenkins used an unreasonable amount of force to remove him from his truck in violation of the Fourth Amendment, either before or after the deputy saw the gun. Further, even assuming that Deputy Jenkins used an unreasonable amount of force against Helvie during the traffic stop, Helvie failed to cite any relevant cases, and the Tenth Circuit could not find any, indicating that his asserted constitutional violation was clearly established at the time of his traffic stop. Accordingly, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

The decision to grant Deputy Jenkins qualified immunity was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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