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Woodall v. Godfrey.

2024 COA 42. No. 23CA0420. Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights—Excessive Force Claim—Colorado Constitution Article II—Searches and Seizures—42 USC § 1983—Objective Reasonableness Standard.

April 25, 2024

Woodall had a mental health crisis that prompted a police dispatch to his home. Officer Godfrey was one of the responding officers. On arriving, Godfrey saw Woodall standing in the street with a knife and saw Officer Dinges pointing an AR-15 rifle at Woodall. Godfrey fired a specialty impact munitions (SIM) shotgun, a nonlethal weapon, and then Dinges shot Woodall four times with his rifle. Woodall was seriously injured but survived. Woodall then brought claims for civil rights violations under CRS § 13-21-131 against Godfrey for use of excessive force and violation of due process. Godfrey filed a CRCP 12(b)(5) motion to dismiss Woodall’s claims, which the district court granted.

On appeal, Woodall challenged the dismissal of the excessive force claim, contending that the standard for evaluating an excessive force claim brought under CRS § 13-21-131 is “objective reasonableness,” and the district court failed to appropriately apply that standard in dismissing his complaint. The court of appeals first concluded that CRS § 13-21-131 is similar to 42 USC § 1983, under which a plaintiff claiming a deprivation of civil rights must establish (1) that the use of force was objectively unreasonable and (2) a cause in fact between the conduct complained of and the constitutional deprivation. When determining whether the force used to effect a seizure is reasonable under Colo. Const. art. II, § 7, courts should apply the objective reasonableness standard set forth in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989), which assesses the officer’s conduct under the totality of the circumstances. Here, the district court erred to the extent that it dismissed Woodall’s claim based on his failure to allege that Godfrey’s actions were inspired by malice, were grossly disproportionate, or shocked the conscience, which allegations are not required under Graham. Further, taking Woodall’s factual allegations as true, and drawing reasonable inferences from those allegations, Woodall has plausibly alleged the elements of an excessive force claim, which here are that (1) the use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable because Godfrey knew that Woodall was suicidal, that he was holding only a knife, and that there were no bystanders nearby; (2) the sound of the SIM round being fired caused Dinges, who believed Woodall had a gun, to shoot Woodall with a potentially lethal round; (3) it was unreasonable for Godfrey to fire the SIM shotgun because he knew or should have known that he was beyond the SIM shotgun’s effective range; (4) Godfrey knew or should have known that firing the SIM shotgun without first shouting “less lethal” would cause Dinges to use unreasonable, deadly force against Woodall and thereby violate Woodall’s constitutional rights; and (5) the application of deadly force caused Woodall’s injuries. Therefore, the district court erred by dismissing the excessive force claim.

The judgment as to the excessive force claim was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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