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Rudley v. Little Rock Police Department

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 3, 2019

Dedra Rudley, and Minor Child M.D.B. Plaintiff- Appellee
Little Rock Police Department; City of Little Rock Defendants Hubert Bryant, In his individual and official capacity; Chris Oldham, In his individual and official capacity Defendants - Appellants Kenton Buckner, Chief of Police, in his individual and official capacity Defendant

          Submitted: April 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before LOKEN, WOLLMAN, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          Wollman, Circuit Judge.

         Dedra Rudley filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that Little Rock Police Officers Hubert Bryant and Chris Oldham used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment while arresting her and her minor son, M.D.B. The officers have appealed the district court's denial of their motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Because the officers' actions did not violate Rudley and M.D.B.'s clearly established rights, we reverse and remand.

         Rudley and M.D.B. met with the principal of M.D.B.'s school just over a week after M.D.B. had suffered a broken clavicle during an altercation at school. When the meeting became hostile, the school principal requested that security officers escort Rudley and M.D.B. from the premises. Responding to the request, Bryant, serving as the School Resource Officer at the time, was told by the principal that Rudley had thrown a book at him. Bryant requested identification from Rudley, who stated that her identification was in her car. Bryant and Jerry Moore, a security guard employed by the school district, escorted Rudley and M.D.B. to the parking lot.

         M.D.B. asserts that Bryant seemed to be agitated as the three proceeded to Rudley's vehicle in the parking lot. He also noticed that Bryant stood very close to Rudley while she looked for her identification and at one point appeared to reach for his gun. When M.D.B. asked what Bryant was reaching for, Bryant informed him that he was under arrest. As Bryant was proceeding around the back of Rudley's vehicle towards M.D.B., Rudley stepped in between the two of them before falling into Bryant.

         Bryant disputes this account of the events in the parking lot. He contends that M.D.B. acted aggressively and threatened him. He asserts that when he informed M.D.B. that he was under arrest for terroristic threats, Rudley stepped in front of him and pushed him before falling to the ground.

         The remainder of the interaction was captured on video by the camera attached to Bryant's taser. As M.D.B. helped Rudley up from the ground, Rudley exclaimed "wait a minute [expletive]" and then took a step towards Bryant as Bryant commanded her to "stop-get back." Bryant then deployed his taser on Rudley. As this was occurring, security guard Moore told M.D.B. to step away. He did so and then took a few steps towards Moore. The video then shows M.D.B. and Moore engaged in a physical altercation. Rudley retrieved papers from the ground and walked purposefully towards M.D.B. and Moore and away from Bryant, who then cycled his taser again on Rudley as she walked away. Bryant caught up with Rudley before she reached M.D.B. and Moore and took her down, at which point the camera was shaking or pressed against Rudley's clothes for approximately thirty seconds.

         Bryant contends that he was forced to use his taser again after taking Rudley down because she "attempted to get up." Rudley and M.D.B. assert that Bryant was on top of Rudley, who was fully compliant, with his knee on her back or neck, an account contradicted by the video, the audio and the shaking nature of which are consistent with a physical struggle, during which Bryant informed Rudley that she was under arrest and ordered her to stop resisting. Although Rudley stated that she was not resisting, the video reveals that the scene became calm only after Bryant had used his taser a third time and was thereafter able to place Rudley in handcuffs.

         Officer Oldham arrived in the meantime, arrested M.D.B. and handcuffed his wrists behind his back, which Rudley and M.D.B. allege exacerbated M.D.B.'s existing injury. Oldham's arrival and his subsequent arrest of M.D.B. are not shown on the video.

         The officers moved for summary judgment, asserting that they were entitled to qualified immunity. Although the district court found that the scene, as shown on the video, was "chaotic and combative," it denied the officers' motion, concluding in part that "the right to be free from excessive force, particularly physical force and repeated tasing was clearly established in May 2014."

         The officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless (1) the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Rudley, establishes a violation of a constitutional or statutory right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the violation, such that a reasonable official would have known that his actions were unlawful. See Blazek v. City of Iowa City, 761 F.3d 920, 922-23 (8th Cir. 2014). "We review a district court's qualified immunity determination de novo and may resolve the appeal under either prong of the analysis." Id. at 923. The Supreme Court has emphasized that courts should not "define clearly established law at a high level of generality." Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2017) (per curiam) (quoting City & Cty. of San Francisco, Calif. v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1765-66 (2015)). Because "[u]se of excessive force is an area of the law in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case, . . . police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue." Id. at 1153 (internal quotation marks omitted). In other words, Rudley must identify controlling authority or "a robust 'consensus of cases of persuasive authority'" placing the constitutional question beyond debate. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 742 (2011) (quoting Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 617 (1999)).

         Turning first to the claims against Bryant, Rudley alleges that Bryant's repeated tasing violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of unreasonable force. In rejecting Bryant and Oldham's qualified immunity defense, the district court reasoned that Rudley and M.D.B. were unarmed, made no attempt to flee the scene, and did not appear to pose a "real threat" to the safety of the officers. The court then identified several disputes of material fact, ...

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