Struggle in car leads to deadly officer-involved shooting
Court decisions have held it is reasonable for officers to use deadly force to end a pursuit if a suspect engages in dangerous prior conduct or there is objective evidence of the driver’s intent to harm officers
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Stewart v. City of Euclid, 2020 WL 4727281 (6th Cir. 2020)
A woman reported a suspicious car outside her residence, idling for about 20 minutes with parking lights on. Two officers responded to the call. The first officer, Officer Catalani, looked through the windows and saw a digital scale in the center console, a burnt marijuana blunt, an aluminum screw top from a wine bottle and Luke Stewart asleep in the driver seat. The officer discovered an arrest warrant for the registered owner of the vehicle, though he thought Stewart looked too young to be the owner.
Officer Rhodes arrived, parking his car in front of Stewart’s car, while Officer Catalani, parked at the rear of Stewart’s car, turned on his spotlight. Officer Catalani approached from the driver's side and Officer Rhodes approached from the passenger side. Stewart awoke when Officer Catalani tapped on the window. Neither officer announced himself as a police officer. Officer Catalani waved at Stewart, who waved back, sat up and started the car.
Officer Catalani yelled, “No. No. No. Stop. Stop. Stop.” He opened the driver's door and grabbed Stewart’s left arm in an attempt to pull him out of the vehicle. Officer Catalani reached around Stewart’s head to press on a pressure point under Stewart’s jaw. Stewart began yelling. Officer Rhodes opened the passenger door, kneeling on the passenger seat and pushing Stewart. Stewart put the car into gear and drove it into, then around, Rhodes’ patrol car.
Officer Rhodes feared the passenger door would strike his patrol car, trapping his legs, so he pulled his legs onto the passenger seat. Stewart drove away with Officer Rhodes in the car and Officer Catalani pursuing on foot. Stewart looked at Officer Rhodes and asked, “Why are you in my car?” Officer Rhodes then struck him in the head and pushed the gear lever into neutral.
Stewart pushed the lever back into drive and said, “Naw, n____,” each time Officer Rhodes hit him. Officer Rhodes fired his TASER device into Stewart’s right side. Stewart shouted, “Ah, you shot me.” Rhodes pulled the TASER trigger six times (attempting to use the device in probe mode with little probe spread) with little effect. Officer Rhodes hit Stewart in the head with his TASER. Again, Stewart did not respond other than to say, “Naw, n____.”
The car came to an abrupt stop at an intersection and Officer Rhodes was able to shift the car into neutral and shut off the motor. Just as Officer Catalani ran up to open the door, Stewart started the car again and drove away. Stewart drove over the curb and back onto the street multiple times as Officer Rhodes tried to knock the car out of gear. He eventually succeeded, but Stewart tried to “swat” Rhodes and revved the motor.
Fearful Stewart would get the car into gear and drive into a telephone pole, Officer Rhodes drew his gun and shot Stewart twice. Stewart looked at Officer Rhodes, repeated, “Naw, n____” and punched him. Officer Rhodes shot Stewart three more times, then kicked the passenger door open and got out. Stewart died from his wounds.
Stewart’s mother sued, alleging excessive force and miscellaneous state law claims. The trial court granted qualified immunity, ruling Officer Rhodes reasonably believed he was in danger of serious physical harm when in Stewart’s car and was at risk of being kidnapped. The court also found Stewart’s driving created a risk of serious physical harm to the public. Thus, Officer Rhodes was justified in using deadly force. Stewart’s mother appealed.
The court of appeals began its analysis of whether Officer Rhodes should benefit from qualified immunity by noting its duty to not “allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day.” And in an apparent rebuff to the theory that Rhodes should bear the consequences of his tactical decision to enter Stewart’s car, leading to the wild ride, the court noted, “Rhodes’s choice to enter the vehicle, and his choice not to exit the vehicle when it was stopped for ten to fifteen seconds, is irrelevant in assessing the reasonableness of his use of force.” Rhodes was entitled to qualified immunity “insofar as [his] conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
The court of appeals cited several factors that mitigated against the use of deadly force. First, the court downplayed Stewart’s physical moves toward Officer Rhodes. Though Rhodes fired a TASER device at Stewart and struck him on the head, Stewart initially merely “swatted” at Officer Rhodes. Second, the court opined that Stewart was “just driving” and that his driving, “while poor, was not so dangerous as to constitute ‘an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.’” Previous court decisions have held it is reasonable for an officer to use deadly force to end a pursuit when the suspect engages in “dangerous prior conduct … imminent risk of harm to an identifiable party, or objective evidence of the driver’s intent to harm officers.” Third, the appellate court believed “no reasonable officer in Rhodes’s position would believe he was being kidnapped by Stewart.”
In sum, the court held that, while some factors might justify deadly force, a reasonable jury might conclude Stewart did not present a threat of death or serious bodily injury to Officer Rhodes and deadly force was not justified. Nonetheless, the court agreed with the trial court that Rhodes was entitled to qualified immunity. The plaintiff showed neither controlling precedential authority nor a “robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority” clearly establishing “beyond debate” that Officer Rhodes could not use deadly force to defend himself against Stewart.
Previously, we considered the case of Wright v. City of Euclid, 2020 WL 3278698 (6th Cir. 2020). The same agency and the same training materials were at issue in this case. Both the trial and appellate courts commented on the content and supervision of the police department’s training program. The trial court observed the “Department’s dubiously supervised and organized excessive force training regimen or its tasteless, irresponsible frivolity,” which was “grossly inappropriate,” might easily effect a finding of liability for the police department in the case that an officer violated a person’s constitutional rights. The court of appeals observed the department training “involved inappropriate and tasteless elements,” but “Stewart cannot sue the City of Euclid for its distasteful, perhaps inadequate, training program” because it was not the cause of Stewart’s death. Still, the courts’ strong words serve as a warning to police trainers that the materials they use and the words they speak matter in the assessment of reasonable of force by officers they train.
The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to reconsider the state law claims. One judge dissented, stating Stewart “was unarmed, unsuspected of committing a serious felony, and behind the wheel of a stationary vehicle when Rhodes opened fire into his torso, chest, neck, and wrist. Qualified immunity should not shield Rhodes from the consequences of that unreasonable decision.”