Pro Se Plaintiff Alleging Officers “Slammed” His Head on Pavement Stated Valid Fourth Amendment Claim, Foreclosed Qualified Immunity Defense

In Saunders v. Duke, No. 12-11401 (Sept. 8, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit reversed a dismissal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and held that a pro se plaintiff stated a valid Fourth Amendment claim for excessive force by alleging that officers “slammed” his head onto hot pavement with “extreme force,” after he had been handcuffed and was lying prone on the ground, and that the agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation were not entitled to qualified immunity. Appellant was Mr. Oberist Lee Saunders, who met with two men at a gas station in Orlando, Florida to sell them oxycodone pills. Unfortunately for Mr. Saunders, those two men were, in actuality, an undercover officer and a confidential informant. After being surrounded and asked to place his hands on the windshield of the undercover officer’s car, Appellant complied with the order without resisting or attempting to flee, and was jerked from the vehicle and pushed on to the pavement in order for one Appellee to handcuff him. In order to keep the pavement from burning his face, he lifted his head from the ground. Suddenly, one of the Appellees “slammed” Appellant’s face to the pavement with “extreme force,” resulting in lacerations, injuries to his teeth and jaw, damage to his left eardrum, and emotional distress due to his head striking the pavement.

The District Court dismissed the complaint and held that the Agents were entitled to qualified immunity because “a reasonable officer in [the Agents’] position could have believed that the use of force to return [Mr. Saunders’s] head to the pavement was lawful on the bases that [Mr. Saunders] was refusing to cooperate and/or resisting arrest when he lifted his head from the pavement.” Id. at *2. The Eleventh Circuit held that in so ruling, the District Court erred because its reasoning assumed that Appellant was resisting arrest or refusing to cooperate, but “[t]hat assumption, however, does not read the allegations of the complaint in the light most favorable to [Appellant].” Id. at *2-4.

When analyzing the qualified immunity issue the Court held that “courts may not award damages against a government official in his personal capacity unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.” Id. at *2 (quoting Lane v. Franks, 134 S.Ct. 2369, 2381 (2014)). The Court analyzed a series of excessive force cases from the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether the Agents’ use of force was “objectively reasonable,” and eventually ruled the force was “unnecessary, disproportionate, and constitutionally excessive,” and that the right for a non-resisting suspect to be free from excessive force had been clearly established since 2002. Id. at *4.

Finally, the Court rejected arguments that Appellees only used de minimis force and Appellant suffered no constitutionally cognizable injury, noting the arguments were “significantly flawed.” Id. at *5 (emphasis in original). The Court held “this principle has never been used to immunize officers who use excessive and gratuitous force after a suspect has been subdued, is not resisting, and poses not threat.” Id. Regarding the “constitutionally cognizable injury” argument, the Court analogized the claim for violation of Appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights to one for a violation of the Eighth Amendment wherein “the Supreme Court has recognized that ‘[a] [defendant] who is gratuitously beaten by guards does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury,” and held, “[w]e see no reason why the same rationale should not apply in a Fourth Amendment excessive force case.” Id. at *5 (quoting Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 38-39 (2010)).

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