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Reavis v. Frost

No. 19-7042. E.D.Okla. Judge McHugh. 42 USC § 1983 Civil Rights Claim—Fourth Amendment Violation—Excessive Force—Qualified Immunity—Summary Judgment.

July 27, 2020

Defendant was a deputy sheriff and responded to a reported stabbing. After obtaining a description of the assailant and his vehicle, defendant and another deputy commenced a search. Upon viewing a similar vehicle, defendant commenced a traffic stop. He approached the vehicle with his gun drawn and requested that the driver, Coale, show his hands. Coale accelerated his truck forward toward defendant, passing him within inches. As the vehicle passed, defendant fired five to seven times from behind and to the side of the vehicle. Coale died from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He was not the stabbing suspect.

Coale’s estate brought a claim against defendant under 42 USC § 1983, alleging he violated Coale’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force, and a state wrongful death claim. Defendant moved for summary judgment on both claims. The district court denied the motion as to the § 1983 claim, concluding that a reasonable jury could find defendant’s use of deadly force objectively unreasonable under the circumstances and that this was clearly established under Tenth Circuit precedent. The court dismissed the wrongful death claim because the estate conceded that defendant was not the proper party.

Defendant appealed the order denying qualified immunity, contending that the district court erred when it concluded his actions were objectively unreasonable. Qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability where their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known. Here, the district court properly assessed whether a jury could conclude that defendant was no longer in danger when he fired shots into Coale’s fleeing truck by evaluating the seriousness and immediacy of the threat under the totality of the circumstances. A reasonable officer in defendant’s position would have known that when he raised his weapon and fired, there was no immediate threat of harm to himself or others such that the general dangers posed by Coale’s reckless driving were insufficient to justify the use of deadly force. Further, under Tenth Circuit precedent, when defendant shot and killed Coale, it was clearly established that when an officer uses deadly force to stop a fleeing vehicle, he must do so based on an immediate threat to himself or others. Accordingly, the district court did not err.

The denial of summary judgment based on 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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