Qualified immunity for bizarre stop leading to roadside shooting
The court bypassed the issue of whether the stop was a legitimate welfare check
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Gysan v. Francisko, 2020 WL 3958444 (7th Cir. 2020)
On the opening day of deer season, a wildlife officer approached a van parked on the side of a road. Just before, the officer had seen hunters walking out of the woods.
The driver, Shane Cataline, was acting strangely but produced his driver's license when asked. A state trooper stopped to back up the wildlife officer.
As the wildlife officer was checking Cataline’s license, Cataline called 911 and said: “I am in a lot of trouble…I think I am going to be disappearing.” Cataline hung up without further conversation. Unaware of the call, the wildlife officer told Cataline that he was free to go.
The 911 call taker notified the state patrol supervisor, who then directed the trooper to stop Cataline for a welfare check. The trooper and wildlife officer followed Cataline, and though they saw no traffic violation, stopped him and instructed him to turn off the engine. Cataline silently stared straight ahead and did not turn off the motor.
After ignoring three requests, Cataline put the van into reverse, turned and drove the van west in the eastbound lanes. Cataline then made another turn and drove into the side of the trooper’s car, pinning the trooper behind the hyperextended door.
The wildlife officer jumped on top of the trooper’s car and shot Cataline, who died at the scene. His mother sued, alleging the stop was unconstitutional and therefore any use of force, including the shooting, was unreasonable.
The court held the wildlife officer was entitled to qualified immunity. The court bypassed the issue of whether the stop was a legitimate welfare check. In Los Angeles v. Mendez (137 S. Ct. 1539 (2017)), the Supreme Court held officers who make errors that lead them into a situation in which they are threatened do not lose the ability to lawfully defend themselves, in spite of their mistaken conduct. Thus, even if the stop was unlawful, the officers were entitled to protect themselves against Cataline.
The plaintiff argued that Cataline may have put his hands up in surrender after crashing into the trooper’s car. However, the officers denied this, and as the court observed, the only person who could conceivably contradict the officers was dead. The video recording showed the trooper was limping after being pinned to his car and screaming after being struck.
Insofar as the plaintiff sought damages for a purported Fourth Amendment violation of unlawful seizure in the traffic stop, the court held the stop was proper. The context of the 911 call, coupled with Cataline’s strange behavior at the initial contact, would lead a reasonable officer to be concerned Cataline could be excessively tired or under the influence of drugs and that he posed a risk to himself or others on the road.