Thompson v. Rahr

Case Citation: Thompson v. Rahr, 885 F.3d 582 (9th Cir. 2018)
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the deputy alleged use of force, in pointing his gun at arrestee and threatening to kill him if he did not surrender, was excessive, but arrestee’s right not to have a gun pointed at him under the circumstances was not clearly established.
Judgment: AFFIRMED.
Fact Background: In December 2011, Lawrence Thompson was pulled over for multiple traffic violations. The officer who stopped him, Pete Copeland, ran his information, discovered that Thompson’s license was suspended, and that he had previously been convicted for possessing a firearm. Copeland had Thompson exit the vehicle, patted him down for weapons (finding nothing), and then searched the car, finding a revolver in a garbage bag. Thompson continued to sit on the bumper of the police cruiser, watched over by another deputy who had arrived as pack up. Then, although Thompson had been compliant and peaceful, and had no access to any weapon, Copeland drew his gun, pointed it at Thompson’s head, and threatened to kill him if he did not surrender.
Procedural Background: Thompson brought a civil rights lawsuit under section 1983, alleging excessive force by Copeland, but the Ninth Circuit granted qualified immunity to the officer. Thompson appealed.
Opinion: The Ninth Circuit determined that the actions of Defendants were not objectively reasonable and, thus, violated Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment right against excessive force. The Court found that Defendant’s act of pointing a gun at Plaintiff’s head and threatening to kill him if he does not surrender cannot be characterized as ‘minor’ in type and amount of force. Further, Plaintiff was “suspected of driving with a suspended license and violating the uniform Firearms Act—potential crimes of low and moderate severity, respectively.” Thus, Plaintiff did not pose a safety threat to officers or the public. Lastly, “the government’s claim that Thompson ‘could have charged past Deputy Copeland and grabbed the revolver [in the back of the car] in a matter of seconds’ is weak” as “Thompson would have had to travel 10-15 feet to his car to grab the gun or make any use of it.” Based on the undisputed facts of the case, the Court concluded that “the force used against Thompson was excessive when balanced against the government’s need for such force.” Despite affirming the unconstitutionality of Defendant’s use of force, the Court AFFIRMED the district court’s decision to grant Defendant qualified immunity because “Thompson’s right not to have a gun pointed at him under the circumstances here was not clearly established at the time the vents took place.” In other words, the facts of the case at hand do not match the facts of previous cases closely enough to notice every reasonable officer in Copeland’s position that pointing a gun at Thompson was violating the constitution. Specifically, “Thompson’s nighttime, felony arrest arising from an automobile stop, in which a gun was found, coupled with a fluid, dangerous situation, distinguishes this case from our earlier precedent” and “the only traffic stop case Thompson points to involved markedly different facts.” The Court concludes:

While Thompson fails to carry his burden that, in view of the safety concerns faced in this traffic stop, every reasonable police officer would have known that Copeland's conduct was unconstitutional under these circumstances, we acknowledge that the facts of this case are at the outer limit of qualified immunity's protection in the excessive force context.

Thompson v. Rahr, 885 F.3d 582 (9th Cir. 2018)

Thus, “because the law was not clearly established within the parameters dictated,” the Court granted Defendant qualified immunity, despite finding his actions unreasonable use of excessive force and, therefore, in violation of Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen publishes a dissenting opinion:

Deputy Copeland was justified in displaying some degree of force, but accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, he unquestionably used excessive force when he aimed his gun at Thompson’s head and threatened that if Thompson moved, he’d be dead. Because that rule was clearly established long before Thompson was arrested, I respectfully dissent.

Thompson v. Rahr, 885 F.3d 582 (9th Cir. 2018)

Judge Christen elaborates further on the complex relationship between 1983 claims and qualified immunity stating, “there will always be tension between protecting individual rights and allowing officers the flexibility they need to protect the public and themselves, but the court’s job is to balance officers’ use of force against intrusions on individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights.”
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