Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Denial of qualified immunity in deadly force case reversed

In Waterman v. Batton, the Fourth Circuit in an opinion by Chief Judge Wilkins, joined by District Judge Hudson with Judge Motz dissenting, reversed the denial by District Judge Blake in Maryland of summary judgment to the individual defendants based on qualified immunity, in a case where the defendants were accused of using deadly force in violation of the decedent's constitutional rights.

Interestingly, part of the summary of the facts includes the appeals court's interpretation of a video recording of the events in question: "the video leaves no doubt that at the moment of acceleration, there were officers positioned close enough to the vehicle that Waterman could have run them over in approximately one second."

The Court also noted, with respect to the District Court's conclusion of unreasonableness: "While we may not question the circumstances that the district court assumed in analyzing the reasonableness of Appellants’ actions, the reasonableness itself—and specifically the question of what a reasonable jury could determine regarding reasonableness—is an issue that we consider de novo."

The majority concluded that the officers were justified in shooting at the decedent's car as they perceived it to be headed towards them, and that they were entitled to qualified immunity for continuing to shoot at the car as it drove past because the case law did not show that this violated the decedent's clearly established rights at the time of the shooting.

Judge Motz, in dissent, said Judge Blake had the case figured rightly.

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