U.S. 5th Circuit holds fact question exists on qualified immunity between whether officer stepped in front of car to prevent escape, or was already in front of car and shot to defend himself

 

Vann v. City of Southaven, 16-60561 (5th Cir. November 22, 2017).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the granting of summary judgment for the City and its officer in this police shooting and death case.

Vann drove Katchens and Katchens’s three-year-old son to a drug exchange which turned out to be a police sting operation. Shortly after Vann arrived at the lot, his car was boxed in by unmarked civilian cars driven by undercover police officers. The officers exited their cars, and Vann reversed his car, trying to escape. During Vann’s escape attempt, Vann’s car moved forward toward Sergeant Jeff Logan, who shot Vann before being knocked to the ground by Vann’s car. While Logan was on the ground, and as Vann’s car approached him for a second time, Lieutenant Jordan Jones fired a second shot at Vann. Vann died as a result of the shots fired by Logan and Jones. Katchens and his son survived.  The facts are in dispute as to whether the officers used lights/sirens, wore police badges and vests, and identified themselves as police officers. There is also disagreement as to the sequence of events.  Vann’s estate filed suit. The City and officers moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Vann appealed.

The central disputed fact is whether Logan ran to the opening and shot Vann to stop him from fleeing or whether Logan ran between the cars to get out of Vann’s way and then shot Vann because Vann was going to hit him.  However, since the U.S. Supreme Court has told courts not to define “clearly established law” at a high level of generality, the disputed facts must be examined for an application.  Tthe question becomes if Logan’s conduct were believed to be as Katchens testified, is Logan still entitled to qualified immunity. When viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, Logan’s running into the way of Vann’s car and shooting at Van are not distinct acts. It has long been settled that “[w]here [a fleeing] suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so.” Put simply, “[a] police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead.” On the other hand, if Logan was running away from Vann’s moving car and thus being threatened at the time he shot, a reasonable officer would have resorted to deadly force in such situations. Disputed evidence exists between Logan running in front of Vann’s car to prevent him from escaping and Logan already being in the car’s path and shooting to prevent injury. As a result, based on summary judgment standards, the summary judgment was improperly granted.

Justice Haynes concurred in part, but dissents as to the denial of Logan’s qualified immunity.  In his opinion, the disputed facts are disputed only up to a point. However, at some moment during this escape attempt, Logan was in front of the vehicle that ultimately struck him, Logan fired his weapon.  His opinion is that such force is reasonable under legal standards and Logan should have been granted qualified immunity.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  The panel consists of Justices Smith, Elrod and Haynes. Opinion by Justice Enrod. Justice Haynes concurred in part and dissented in part.  The attorney listed for Vann is Daniel Marten Czamanske.  The attorney listed for the City is Robert Edwin Hayes, Jr.


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