Section 1983, Unreasonable Seizures and Qualified Indemnity
Eldredge v. Town of Falmouth, MA, First Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-1151
(November 22, 2011)
The plaintiff sustained serious injuries when he was struck by a police cruiser while walking along the road at night. A Falmouth police officer, along with two other officers operating separate cruisers, was responding to an unrelated domestic violence incident at a local residence. When the officer was about a half mile from his destination he observed the plaintiff and a companion walking along the road. The officer demanded that the pedestrians “stand right there!” As the pedestrians were complying with the officer’s request, one of the other approaching cruisers rear-ended the first cruiser, veered off it, and struck the plaintiff.
The plaintiff brought claims against the individual officers, Town of Falmouth and the chief of the Falmouth Police Department. Invoking 42 U.S.C. §1983, he alleged that: 1) the initial stop was an unreasonable seizure because it constituted a detention without adequate justification; 2) the contact by the cruiser was an unreasonable seizure; and 3) the Town and police chief failed to adequately train the officers on how to safely respond to incidents. The plaintiff also asserted parallel state civil rights claims and tort claims.
The federal district court dismissed the federal claims, ruling that the individual officers were entitled to qualified immunity and that the failure to train claims were also foreclosed. It then remanded the case to the state court for resolution of the state law claims. The plaintiff appealed only the dismissal of the Section 1983 claims against the individual officers.
The court held that the Section 1983 claims against the officer who struck the plaintiff were properly dismissed due to the absence of a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, which requires an “intentional acquisition of physical control.” Despite the allegations that the officer was operating his cruiser at high speeds, he clearly did not intend to strike the plaintiff. The Court rejected the argument that the officer was engaged in a “team effort” with the first officer as they responded to the 911 call, ruling that an officer’s participation in a group operation, without more, is not sufficient to impute liability to him for the conduct of others.
The court then considered the claims against the first officer and held that he was entitled to qualified immunity. While the plaintiff had a clearly established right to be free from investigatory stops in the absence of reasonable suspicion, the court’s inquiry must be based on whether a reasonable officer standing in the defendant’s shoes could have believed that reasonable suspicion existed. An investigatory stop – “Terry stop” – requires only that the facts give rise to a reasonable suspicion that a suspect may be involved in criminal activity. In light of the proximity to the site of the domestic disturbance the officer did not act unreasonably in stopping the plaintiff based on his suspicion that he was the caller’s ex-boyfriend. Although the plaintiff did not match the caller’s description of her alleged assailant, the officer’s assessment of the situation was not “so obviously misguided that no reasonable officer could have reached the same conclusion.”
Stephen J. Schulthess