Eleventh Circuit Finds Plaintiff Failed to Show Police Officer Lacked Qualified Immunity

In Singletary v. Vargas, No. 14-14424, 2015 WL 6533367 (11th Cir. Oct. 29, 2015), the defendant appealed a decision from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida that denied the defendant’s claim of qualified immunity and the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The facts of the case involve an undercover officer, Deputy Jason Roberts, who posed as a drug purchaser. Deputy Roberts, along with other officers including the defendant Juan Vargas, went to a gas station to meet the alleged drug dealer. Once there, the officers knew that the suspect would be driving a red Toyota, saw the car appear, and later found out that the plaintiff, James Singletary, was a passenger in the car. As the defendant walked towards the front of the car, the car accelerated towards the defendant. The defendant fell on the ground and the car stopped. Sometime between the car’s acceleration and the defendant’s fall, the defendant shot at the car and injured the plaintiff. Video surveillance showed the car’s lights reflecting on the defendant’s pants as the car accelerated, indicating that the defendant was in front of the car. However, since the video surveillance lacked audio, there is no definitive proof on when the defendant shot at the car.

The plaintiff brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) excessive force action against the defendant. The defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment and claimed qualified immunity. The district court denied his motion because they found that the plaintiff fulfilled his burden to show that the defendant’s qualified immunity was not justified because a reasonable officer would not have exercised deadly force in this situation. The defendant appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The ultimate issue is whether the plaintiff fulfilled his burden in proving that the defendant should not get qualified immunity. The court weighed the conflicting interests of holding an officer liable who carelessly exercised force and safeguarding an officer who applied reasonable force when performing his duties. The court grants qualified immunity to an officer “unless the plaintiff can demonstrate two things: (1) that the facts, when construed in the plaintiff’s favor, show that the official committed a constitutional violation and, if so, (2) that the law, at the time of the official’s act, clearly established the unconstitutionality of that conduct.” Singletary, 2015 WL 6533367 at *5 (quoting McCullough v. Antolini, 551 F.3d 1201, 1202 (11th Cir. 2009)). Under the first prong, the court looks to the Fourth Amendment’s objective reasonableness standard. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court that if the defendant shot at the car merely to prevent the car from leaving the scene, this would constitute excessive force. However, in cases where the officer uses deadly force because he reasonably believes that the car is being used as a weapon that threatens his life, qualified immunity should be granted. In a motion for summary judgment, the court views the facts in favor of the nonmoving party. The plaintiff’s testimony merely indicated that everything happened so quickly that it was a blur and that since another officer approached the plaintiff’s window, the plaintiff’s description might not be referring to the defendant. Therefore, the plaintiff did not observe the point at issue in which the car accelerated towards the defendant. Also, the court relies on the video surveillance to show that no reasonable jury could believe Plaintiff’s version of events. Further, the court found that even if the defendant’s actions were unreasonable, the second prong is not satisfied since the case law did not give the defendant notice that shooting at the car “violated any clearly established rights.” Id. at 9.

Ultimately, the court held that the defendant’s qualified immunity was justified as a matter of law since the plaintiff failed to meet both tests and reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email