Excessive use of force

Estate of William E. Williams, et al. v. Indiana State Police Department (No. 14-2523), Nancy Brown v. Wayne Blanchard and Walworth County, Wisconsin (No. 14-2808) (7th Cir. August 13, 2015)

Post-Sheehan analysis of two separate excessive force claims in mental health emergencies results in sustaining summary judgment in one case and denial of summary judgment in the second case

Background: In the Williams case, family members reported to the police that Williams had taken all of his remaining Xanax, locked himself in a bathroom and reported that he had cut himself, and threatened to kill anyone who tried to enter the bathroom. The officers who responded were unable to look into the bathroom to confirm Williams’ condition, and carried out a plan in which they unlocked the bathroom door and then tasered Williams to keep him from carrying out his threats of self-harm and harm to others. The tasers had no effect on Williams, who pursued the officers through the house, swinging his knife. Officers shot and killed him. Williams’ estate brought suit alleging excessive use of force by the officers in violation of the 4 th amendment. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment based upon a finding that the officers were protected by qualified immunity. The Williams estate appealed.

In the Brown case, Nancy Brown’s son John had cut himself, had a knife in his possession and was locked in his bedroom, but his mother had a key and went into her son’s room and spoke with him. He refused help, but did not threaten to harm his mother or anyone else. The first responding officer (Officer Such) spoke with Ms. Brown and then attempted to speak with Mr. Brown through the door, but Brown only responded with a profanity. A second officer (Officer Blanchard) arrived, spoke briefly with Ms. Brown and Such, and proceeded down the hall to the bedroom door as Such went outside to look at Mr. Brown through the window. Such radioed to Blanchard that Brown was sitting at his desk, in front of his computer, drinking a beer and smoking. Declining an offer by Brown’s mother to unlock the door to Brown’s room, Blanchard kicked in the door, gun drawn. Officer Such came back inside, backing up Blanchard with his taser drawn. Brown rose with knife in hand, crossed the room, and slammed the door shut. Blanchard again kicked open the bedroom door. The officers later reported that Blanchard ordered Brown to drop the knife and advised Brown that he would have to shoot him, and that Brown responded by rolling his shoulders forward and advancing toward the officers while moving the knife “in an upward position.” The officers reported that when Brown was 5 or 6 feet away from them, Blanchard shot him twice, killing him. Nancy Brown, who was in the living room at the time of the shooting, reported that she never heard either officer tell Brown to drop his knife and that she heard the fatal shot fired almost immediately after the bedroom door was kicked open the second time. Ms. Brown sued Officer Blanchard and the county, claiming excessive force was used against her son in violation of the 4 th amendment. Blanchard moved for summary judgment but the district court denied the motion, ruling that there were material facts in dispute, and that the jury’s findings on those disputed facts could result in a finding of liability on the part of the officer, under one or both of two legal theories: (1) that Blanchard’s unreasonable “pre-seizure conduct” provoked the actions by John Brown that resulted in the shooting, and (2) that at the time of the shooting, John Brown at most was only passively resisting the officers, so that the use of lethal force against Brown was unreasonable. Blanchard appealed. The Court of Appeals consolidated the two cases.

Holdings: A 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals upheld the rulings of each district court. In upholding Williams, the panel cited and closely followed the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 35 S. Ct. 1765 (2015), noting that the plaintiffs could not cite any case law existing at that time that found “objectively unreasonable” the strategy of the officers. In fact, the panel noted, a number of appellate courts had specifically found similar actions in other cases to be objectively reasonable. Hence, the officers were not on notice that their actions were an excessive use of force.

In Brown, the panel upheld the district court’s denial of the officer’s request for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The panel, noting again its reliance on Sheehan, rejected the district court’s concept of liability for “pre-seizure conduct” as not having the support of case law that would put the officer on notice that his conduct violated 4 th amendment standards. However, the panel sustained the district court’s denial of summary judgment in regard to the second theory, noting that under longstanding case law it was clear that it was unreasonable for an officer to use deadly force in response to an individual who was presenting only passive resistance to the officer.

Notable Points: The opinion is a careful and detailed consideration of the facts of each case and of the proper legal framework for a court’s analysis of those facts, particularly under the guidance provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sheehan. The panel rejected the Brown court’s first theory of liability: “Our case law is far from clear as to the relevance of pre-seizure conduct, or even as to a determination as to what conduct falls within the designation ‘pre-seizure,’ although the majority of cases hold that it may not form the basis for a Fourth Amendment claim.”

Why the result in Brown was different: Review standard for interlocutory appeal: The panel noted that, because Blanchard’s appeal was an interlocutory appeal from the district court’s denial of qualified immunity, the scope of the panel’s review was limited to ”the purely legal question of whether ‘a given set of undisputed facts demonstrates a violation of clearly established law.’” Panel’s acceptance of district court’s second theory of liability: The panel found that the law was clear that officers cannot use significant force on non-resisting or passively resisting suspects; so, if a jury found that the facts were as Nancy Brown described them, then Blanchard’s use of deadly force against a “passively resisting” John Brown would violate the 4 th amendment. Blanchard's “pre-seizure conduct” is relevant to this analysis because it is part of the “totality of the circumstances” that must be considered in evaluating the reasonableness of the seizure. The panel noted factors, such as: John never threatened to harm anyone else; John allowed his mother to enter his room and hug him; John was clearly seen to be passively sitting at his computer; and Blanchard chose to kick in the door to John’s room, and to immediately resort to deadly force when the non-lethal taser was immediately available.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 3