American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - Browder v. City of Albuquerque - Tenth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
June 13, 2015
  Browder v. City of Albuquerque - Tenth Circuit
Case Name: Browder v. City of Albuquerque

Headline: Tenth Circuit Holds Qualified Immunity Did Not Shield An Off-Duty Police Officer Who Killed a Civilian While Speeding Through Traffic Because The Actions Were Considered Arbitrary

Area of Law: Tort, Qualified Immunity

Issue Presented: Can an off-duty police officer use the defense of qualified immunity when he was speeding through traffic on private business and his actions led to a car accident in which one passenger was killed and another seriously injured?

Brief Summary:

Sergeant Adam Casaus of the Albuquerque Police Department turned on his emergency lights and drove his police cruiser 8.8 miles through city traffic averaging 66 miles per hour. Sergeant Casaus proceeded through a red light and struck an oncoming vehicle, killing one passenger and seriously injuring another. He argued that the civil lawsuit against him should be dismissed because of qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit disagreed as his conduct was considered arbitrary and shocking to the conscience of the court. Sergeant Casaus was acting as a private person and not a police officer at the time of the accident. Therefore, qualified immunity did not apply.

Extended Summary:

Sergeant Adam Casaus of the Albuquerque Police Department finished his shift and, despite being off-duty, proceeded to drive at high speeds through traffic with his emergency lights on. He averaged speeds of 66 miles an hour and drove through ten busy city intersections for a distance of 8.8 miles. At the eleventh intersection, Sergeant Casaus drove through a red light, this time striking another car. One passenger in the car was killed and another was seriously injured. Sergeant Casaus was charged criminally with reckless vehicular homicide. The Plaintiffs brought this suit in civil court for damages. The group of Plaintiffs included the father of the two passengers who was the representative of the estate of the deceased passenger, the deceased passenger's sister who was the individual who sustained the serious injuries, and the two sisters' mother.

At the trial level, Sergeant Casaus argued that he was protected by qualified immunity and asked the court to dismiss the complaint on these grounds. The trial court denied this motion, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The majority started the opinion by briefly discussing the implications of Section 1983, which allows a citizen to sue when their constitutional rights have been violated "under the color" of state law. The Court concluded Sergeant Casaus' actions were "under the color" of state law. However, the Court made clear that Section 1983 is only a vehicle for bringing a claim against a government official and it is the burden of the Plaintiffs to prove a violation of a constitutional right.

The Plaintiffs in this case argued that, under the 14th Amendment, their rights to due process were violated. The due process clause prohibits government from depriving anyone of their lives, liberty, or property without due process of law. Substantive due process further guarantees certain deprivations will not take place without sufficient justification.

The majority indicated that the Supreme Court in Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997), has offered guidance for determining a substantive due process violation. First, a court must make a careful description of the right that was violated. Second, the court asks if this right is a fundamental one which is described as "objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition." Lastly, a court must determine whether the infringement of the right was direct and substantial. If the Plaintiffs meet this burden, it is up to the government to offer sufficient justification for its actions.

The majority briefly stated that mere negligence towards a fundamental right will not constitute a violation. The government's actions must at least be characterized as recklessness.

The majority felt that it was indisputable that the Plaintiffs met their burden in this case. Serious injury and death are a direct and substantial impairment of the right to life. The majority also declined to accept that Sergeant Casaus had proffered any evidence of sufficient justification for his actions. The majority indicated that there cannot be sufficient justification in circumstances where the government actions are "arbitrary" or "conscience shocking".

The majority held that Sergeant Casaus' actions of activating his emergency lights and speeding through city traffic for 8.8 miles fit this description, and the history of qualified immunity supported this conclusion. Historically, police officers acting as private individuals on private time did not enjoy the benefit of qualified immunity.

The majority further pointed to state law to support its conclusion. Under New Mexico law, when a police officer is pursuing a criminal he or she is not insulated from "the consequences of his [or her] reckless disregard for the safety of others." Additionally, New Mexico law also indicated that it was an abuse of their position for police officers to use their emergency lights while conducting private business.

Sergeant Casaus offered several defenses for his actions. First, he argued that he was pursuing a car and thus was acting on official business. If this were the case, qualified immunity would apply. However, the majority noted that the well-pleaded facts of the complaint indicated that, contrary to this assertion, he was not pursuing a car. The complaint indicated that Sergeant Casaus did not radio dispatch that he was on official police business and witnesses at the scene said that he was not pursuing another car. The majority noted that at this stage of the lawsuit they must accept the facts of Plaintiffs' complaint as true.

Sergeant Casaus next argued that because he activated his emergency lights that he was not acting recklessly. These lights are typically activated as a means to ensure the safety of those around the police car. However, the majority stated that granting qualified immunity in this circumstance would simply permit police officers to drag race with their emergency lights on. Further, the majority noted Sergeant Casaus relied on no authority for this position.

Lastly, Sergeant Casaus argued that running the red light only took 2.5 seconds and thus he did not have enough time to form a reckless state of mind. While continuing to view the facts most favorable to the Plaintiffs, the majority stated that one could conclude that Sergeant Casaus actually had the eight minutes it took to ravel the 8.8 miles for reflection on his conduct.

The majority indicated that Sergeant Casaus could have raised a defense left open in Parratt v. Taylor. 451 U.S. 527 (1981), that the Plaintiff is required to show that state law supplies no adequate remedy for the constitutional violation before they can proceed to federal court. However, the majority concluded that Sergeant Casaus abandoned this defense.

Judge Gorsuch, despite authoring the majority opinion, also issued a concurrence, arguing that Parratt would actually preclude a federal court from hearing this case. Because a state court offers the same remedy as a federal court, jurisdiction in state court is proper. The concurrence noted that the Supreme Court has warned about this specific activity, an auto accident with a state official, and the danger of essentially turning constitutional violations into state tort law. Sergeant Casaus did not raise this defense on appeal. Therefore, the majority was only able to decide the case on the issues raised on appeal. If he had raised this defense, the concurrence indicated that he would have reached the opposite conclusion in his majority opinion and dismissed the case because state courts, or common law courts as he referenced them, provide the necessary remedies for auto accidents. However, neither of the other two judges in the majority joined in the concurring opinion.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/14/14-2048.pdf

Panel: Gorsuch, Holmes, Tymkovich

Date of Issued Opinion: June 2, 2015

Docket Number: No. 14-2048

Decided: The court concluded that the conduct alleged in Plaintiffs' complaint could give rise to a 14th Amendment claim and thus the district court's decision was affirmed.

Case Alert Author: Leland Churan

Counsel:

Deborah D. Wells of Kennedy, Moulton, & Wells, P.C., Albuquerque, New
Mexico (Stephanie M. Griffin, Assistant City Attorney, City of Albuquerque
Legal Department, Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her on the briefs), for
Appellants.

Sean P. McAfee of the Law Office of Brian K. Branch, Albuquerque, New
Mexico (Brian K. Branch of the Law Office of Brian K. Branch, Albuquerque,
New Mexico, and Erik R. Thunberg, Albuquerque, New Mexico, with him on the
brief), for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Hon. Neil M. Gorsuch

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Barbara Bergman

    Posted By: Dawinder Sidhu @ 06/13/2015 12:40 PM     10th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top