Matthews v. Huntsville Police Department (Ala. 2020) 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143240

Excessive Use of Force; Qualified Immunity

Acting on a report of a stolen vehicle, LE spots vehicle and the chase is on. Subject crashes and runs. PSD team is deployed, warnings were given but PSD bites two officers, each time having to be choked off as verbal commands were not effective (PSD on duty for only 6 months and never had a bite as all previous subjects had surrendered). Subject found hiding beneath car and did not come out when commanded (no additional PSD warning given; not clear if PSD was barking). PSD released and bit and dragged subject out by shoulder. After the bite, subject said, “Okay” and “I’m coming out.” Within a second of being handcuffed, PSD choked off (took 24 seconds). Total bite duration was at most 1 minute and 3 seconds. Court granted summary judgment for LE because using the Graham factors and 3 additional factors. The Eleventh Circuit has instructed courts to look at the following factors in determining the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force: (1) the severity of the crime; (2) whether the individual posed an immediate threat to officers or others; (3) whether the individual actively resisted or attempted to evade arrest; (4) the need to use force; (5) the amount of force used in light of the need; and (6) the severity of the injury. Patel v. City of Madison (11th Cir. 2020) 959 F.3d 1330 at 1339. The court must be “mindful that officers make split-second decisions in tough and tense situations.” Morton v. Kirkwood (11th Cir. 2013) 707 F.3d 1276, at 1281. However, the court held that since LE here was entitled to qualified immunity, an analysis of these factors was not necessary. LE reasonably believed that subject was suspected of stealing a car, leading LE on a high-speed chase, then ran, then hid under a car in someone’s backyard. Also, LE reasonably could believe that subject would refuse to obey commands having already done so. And finally, the court noted that LE could not know whether subject was armed or could have slipped out from under the car and continued to flee. Therefore, use of force was legal. There was a disagreement whether warnings were given, so the court assumed for this motion that warnings were not given. Court also affirmed that PSDs are not deadly force.