Police officer’s use of deadly force on fleeing suspect was objectively unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment, but case law was not clearly established, so police officer is entitled to qualified immunity.
Affirmed summary judgment for defendant based on qualified immunity, 2-1, in an opinion filed by Judge Stranch. Judge Clay filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.
On June 24, 2010, Laszlo Latits was stopped by police for turning the wrong way on a divided boulevard. The police officer testified that he saw bags in the car that he suspected contained drugs. The dashboard camera shows the officer shining his flashlight into the car and raising his gun to Latits’s head at point-blank range. Latits then drove away, and the police pursued. Another officer, Lowell Phillips, repeatedly rammed Latits’ car—in violation of department policy and a direct order not to use this maneuver—and eventually drove Latits off the road. Phillips then jumped out of his car, ran toward Latits, and shot him three times in the chest, killing him. Phillips was subsequently terminated for this conduct.
Latits’s widow sued Phillips under Section 1983, alleging that the shooting of Latits was objectively reasonable, and constituted excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to Phillips, finding that the shooting was reasonable.
The Sixth Circuit unanimously held that Phillips’s use of deadly force violated Latits’s Fourth Amendment rights, because “considering the totality of the circumstances in the light depicted by the video . . . Latits did not present an imminent or ongoing danger” and therefore “the shooting was not objectively reasonable.” The court also noted that while “police procedures do not set the bounds of the Fourth Amendment,” it was still “relevant that Officer Phillips repeatedly violated police procedures in both ramming Latits and running up to his car.”
But a divided panel of the court nevertheless found that Phillips was entitled to qualified immunity. Despite several cases specifically holding that it was unconstitutional to use deadly force on a fleeing driver who posed no ongoing threat, the court found that the law was not clearly established, because those cases “did not involve many of the keys facts in this case, such as car chases on open roads and collisions between the suspect and police cars.”
Judge Clay, dissenting with respect to the holding on qualified immunity, noted that “[i]t is a truism that every case is distinguishable from every other,” but that “the degree of factual similarity that the majority’s approach requires is probably impossible for any plaintiff to meet.”
- The Seattle Times, January 2, 2018