Summary Judgment Is Granted Based On Principles Of Qualified Immunity

On May 18, 2018, in Michael Easley v. City of Riverside, Sergio Diaz and Silvio Macias, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s sua sponte[1] grant of summary judgment in favor of police officers who shot plaintiff three times following a traffic stop.

While the police officers did not move for summary judgment, the District Court directed the parties to brief the issue of qualified immunity on summary judgment.  The Court then held that the officer’s use of deadly force was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and granted summary judgment for defendants.

Case Background

On December 22, 2011, Riverside police officers, Officer Macias and Officer Watkins were on patrol when they noticed a pink Chevrolet Monte Carlo with illegally-tinted windows.  Officer Macias believed he recognized the driver, Stephania Session, from a prior encounter.  Michael Easley, Session’s husband, was a passenger in the car.  As the Chevrolet passed the police car, Officer Macias shone his flashlight into the car, where he saw Easley lean back in his seat.

When the Officers began following the car, Session made a U-turn, sped up, and entered a strip mall parking lot.  After the “Chevrolet sped across the parking lot, fishtailing and barely avoiding hitting another car, the officers activated the patrol car’s lights and sirens.”

At first, the Chevrolet did not heed the lights and sirens but then suddenly stopped whereby “Easley bolted out of the car and, clutching the waistband of his pants with his right hand, ran away from the patrol car.”  Both officers got out and Officer Watkins yelled either “Gun” or “He’s got a gun.”  Officer Macias pursued Easley on foot.

While in foot-pursuit, Easley clutched his waistband with his right hand and with his left hand removed an object, later determined to be a gun, from his right pants’ pocket and flung the item to his left in a “Frisbee” type motion.  Within two to four seconds of Easley throwing the gun, Officer Macias fired three shots, striking Easley twice in the right arm and once in the back.

Procedural History

While the case was initially filed in California state court alleging unreasonable and excessive use of force under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment, made actionable under 42 U.S.C § 1983, the case was removed to District Court.  Thereafter, the parties negotiated a partial dismissal of some of Plaintiff’s claims and Officer Macias agreed not to seek summary judgment on the remaining claims but answered the amended complaint asserting that “his actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances and that he was entitled to qualified immunity from suit, liability and damages.”

During a pretrial status conference, the District Court raised the issue of Officer Macias’ entitlement to qualified immunity and ordered an evidentiary hearing on the issue.  After hearing testimony from several fact and expert witnesses, including Officer Macias and Easley, the District Court determined there were no genuine issues of material fact for determination by a jury and that Officer Macias was entitled to qualified immunity and judgment as a matter of law.

The Appeal and Ruling

The question on appeal was whether the District Court erred by raising qualified immunity on its motion and whether qualified immunity correctly applied.

First, the Court of Appeal held that Officer Macias “raised qualified immunity as a defense in his answer, and he never waived or abandoned his claim of qualified immunity.”  And because the District Court “possess[es] the power to enter summary judgment sua sponte, so long as the losing party was on notice that she had to come forward with all of her evidence,…the district court did not err by raising the issue of qualified immunity sua sponte and addressing it on summary judgment.”

The Court of Appeal also affirmed the District Court’s grant of qualified immunity. As “qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” Courts must engage in a two-prong analysis.  Under this test, “officers are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time.”  Under the second prong, there are “two discrete sub-elements: whether the law governing the conduct at issue was clearly established and whether the facts as alleged could support a reasonable belief that the conduct in question conformed to the established law.”  The question, therefore “is whether the officers’ actions are objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.”

Based on the facts and allegations presented at the evidentiary hearing, the Court of Appeal held that Officer Macias’ use of deadly force was objectively reasonable and that “a reasonable officer may have reasonably feared that Easley had a gun and was turning to shoot him.”

In his dissent, Justice Robert Pratt opined that there were genuine, material factual disputes and that summary judgment should not have been granted.  Judge Pratt would remand so that “the jury can be used to establish disputed material facts, which the district court can then rely upon to determine Macia’s eligibility for qualified immunity as a matter of law.”

The Take-Away

In officer-involved shootings, even if the parties do not move for summary judgment, so long as the qualified immunity affirmative defense is not waived and the parties are given an opportunity to present their evidence, Courts are empowered, on their own motion, to enter summary judgment based on the principles of qualified immunity. In essence, this ruling reinforces the principle that “public officials should be shielded from civil liability when they make reasonable mistakes.”

[1] Sua sponte refers to when the court addresses an issue that has not been presented for consideration by the litigants.

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