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April 19, 2016
  Yates v. Terry et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Qualified Immunity No Guarantee for Police: Officer Faces Trial After Using Excessive Force on Iraq War Veteran

Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Civil Law

Issue Presented: Whether denial of police officer's summary judgment motion in case alleging excessive force during a traffic stop (42 U.S.C. § 1983) should be reversed based on qualified immunity.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion written by Judge Biggs, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ("the court") affirmed the district court's denial of Officer Christopher Terry's motion for summary judgment. The court held that Officer Terry did not have qualified immunity to protect him from liability for using excessive force on Brian Yates. More specifically, the court went through a two-step inquiry to determine whether Officer Terry was entitled to qualified immunity. First, the court was tasked with determining whether the facts established a constitutional violation. The court found that Officer Terry violated Yates' Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force on him when he tased him three times during the traffic stop in question. Second, the court had to determine whether Yates' constitutional right to be free from such excessive force was clearly established. The court explained that any reasonable official in Officer Terry's position would have understood that his conduct of tasing a compliant arrestee three times during a non-threatening traffic stop was excessive force in violation of the arrestee's Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable seizure.

Extended Summary: On December 27, 2008, Brian Yates, a first sergeant and Iraq War Veteran, was driving on a highway in North Charleston, South Carolina. His mother and brother were in separate vehicles following closely behind him. While on the highway, Yates drove past two police cruisers, one being Officer Terry's. Officer Terry pulled onto the highway and was two vehicles behind Yates. When Officer Terry eventually activated his lights, Yates believed the officer was pulling over the car behind him. As a result, Yates switched lanes to allow Officer Terry to pass him. When Yates realized Officer Terry was attempting to pull him over, he compliantly stopped at a gas station.

At the gas station, Officer Terry approach Yates' vehicle and asked for his license. Yates indicated that he did not have his license on him but did have his military identification. Officer Terry then forced Yates out of his car and ordered him to put his hands on top of the car. Yates complied. Yates' mother and brother arrived at the scene during this time. Officer Terry then informed Yates that he was under arrest. When Yates asked why the officer did not provide an explanation. Yates kept both hands on the vehicle, but turned his head to the left. Officer Terry responded to Yate's movement by tasing him and Yates fell to the ground. Yates remained on the ground and did not make any attempts to get up, but Officer Terry proceeded to tase him a second time. After this second tase, Yates asked his brother to call his commanding officer and reached for his cell phone which was clipped to his waist. Officer Terry then tased Yates a third time. Following these events, other officers arrived on the scene and Yates was placed in handcuffs. He was charged with an excessive noise violation, no license in possession, and disorderly conduct. All of these charges were dropped.

On July 21, 2011, Yates filed this action in state court alleging multiple state and federal claims against Officer Terry, the City of North Charleston, the North Charleston Police Department, the Chief, and Unnamed John Does. The suit was removed to federal court and stayed while Yates was deployed to Germany and Kosovo. In May of 2014, Defendants moved for summary judgment and this motion was granted in all parts except with respect o the excessive force claim against Officer Terry in his individual capacity and various claims against the city. The claims against the city were eventually dropped after a subsequent motion, but Terry's excessive force claim was still at issue.

On April 28, 2015, the parties stipulated to all dismissals aside from Yates' 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for excessive force against Officer Terry. As a result, Officer Terry appealed this claim to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, claiming that he was protected by qualified immunity. The court held that Officer Terry did not have qualified immunity to protect him from using excessive force on Yates. More specifically, the court went through a two-step inquiry to determine whether Officer Terry was entitled to qualified immunity.

First, the court was tasked with determining whether the facts established a constitutional violation. Here, Yates argued that Officer Terry used excessive force, which would be in violation his Fourth Amendment right to reasonable searches and seizures. As such, the court turned to the factors in Graham v. Conner to determine whether the amount of force used by Officer Terry was objectively reasonable. 490 U.S. 386 (1989). These factors included "the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id. at 396. The court found that all three factors weighed heavily in Yates' favor. First, his offense of driving without a license was a nonviolent minor traffic infraction and was only a misdemeanor. Second, Yates was unarmed and complied with all of the officer's orders, making the first two tases completely unreasonable. Moreover, even though Yates reached for his cell phone prior to being tased a third time, Yates' brother indicated at trial that the officer allowed Yates to slide him the phone and knew the reason Yates gave him the phone. Lastly, Yates never attempted to resist arrest or flee the scene.

Second, the court had to determine whether Yates' constitutional right was clearly established. The court explained that any reasonable official in Officer Terry's position would have understood that tasing a compliant arrestee three times during a non-threatening traffic stop was excessive force in violation of the arrestee's Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable seizure. As such, the court found that Officer Terry was not entitled to qualified immunity and thus affirmed the district court's denial of his motion for summary judgment.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Wynn, Harris, and Biggs

Argument Date: 01/27/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/31/2016

Docket Number: Case No. 15-1555

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Janna Domico, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Robin Lilley Jackson, SENN LEGAL, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant. Jason Scott Luck, SEIBELS LAW FIRM, P.A., Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Gordon H. Garrett, GARRETT LAW OFFICES, North Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Biggs

Dissenting Opinion: None

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/19/2016 07:32 AM     4th Circuit  

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