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Stewart v. McBride

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

June 27, 2017



          J. RANDAL HALL, JUDGE.

         The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const, amend. IV. This protection prohibits a police officer from using deadly force to stop a fleeing non-violent suspect unless the suspect is a serious threat to the officer or the public. See Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1333 (11th Cir. 2003). According to the facts alleged in Plaintiff's complaint, Plaintiff attempted to flee his apartment after someone complained about a party he was throwing. Defendant Wesley Martin saw him leaving and opened fire on his car. Plaintiff has now sued Officer Martin for using excessive force. He has also sued Chief William McBride for failing to adequately supervise Officer Martin. Chief McBride moves to dismiss the claim against him, arguing that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Because Plaintiff has alleged facts that, when taken as true, show that Chief McBride violated clearly established law, the Court DENIES Chief McBride's motion (doc. 9).

         I. Background

         Accepting the facts alleged in Plaintiff's complaint as true and viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, as the Court must, see Am. United Life Ins. Co. v. Martinez, 480 F.3d 1043, 1057 (11th Cir. 2007), the facts of this case are as follows. On the night of February 20, 2014, Plaintiff, a student at Augusta University, [1] hosted a party at his on-campus apartment. (See Doc. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 14, 17.) Someone - presumably a neighbor - called in a noise complaint to the complex's Resident Advisor. (Id. ¶ 17.) Under university policy, Resident Advisors were required to seek police assistance when they investigated noise complaints. (Id. ¶ 16.) Thus, after receiving the call about Plaintiff's apartment, the Resident Advisor contacted campus police, and several officers, including Officer Martin, responded to the call. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.)

         During the inquiry, Plaintiff left the apartment, got in his car, and attempted to leave the complex. (Id. ¶ 19.) Officer Martin, who had remained in the parking lot, overheard on a radio that someone was attempting to leave the complex and parked his car near the parking lot's exit. (Id. ¶¶ 113-14.) As he tried to leave the parking lot, Plaintiff saw Officer Martin and stopped his car. (Id. ¶ 115.) When Officer Martin saw Plaintiff, he drew his weapon and, without provocation, "shot [Plaintiff] in the face." (Id. ¶ 19.) Plaintiff then attempted to drive away from Officer Martin, and as he did, Officer Martin continued to fire his gun, striking Plaintiff's car ten times. (Id. ¶ 121.)

         Officer Martin has a history of using disproportionate force. In 2010, Officer Martin stopped Frederick Gibbons for driving with a paper tag on his car. (Id. ¶ 49.) When Mr. Gibbons attempted to explain that his tag was valid, Officer Martin "became outraged" and arrested Mr. Gibbons, handcuffing him so tightly that his wrists bled. (Id.) In 2012, Officer Martin stopped Mr. Gibbons a second time for not having a valid tag. (Id. ¶ 65.) Officer Martin once again "became outraged, " and this time he tased Mr. Gibbons five times, without justification, while Mr. Gibbons was in his car. (Id. 66-67.) In fact, Officer Martin later admitted that he tased Mr. Gibbons because Mr. Gibbons did not roll his window down far enough.[2] (Id. ¶ 69.) Then, in 2013, Officer Martin stopped Keith James for speeding. (Id. ¶ 77.) As he approached Mr. James's car, without reason, Officer Martin drew his gun and threatened to shoot Mr. James. (Id. ¶¶ 77-78.) Fearing for his life, Mr. James attempted to drive away, and as he did, Officer Martin began shooting at his car.[3] (Id. ¶¶ 78-81.)

         Defendant William McBride, Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety at Augusta University, knew about each of these events. He appointed an investigator to look into both incidents involving Mr. Gibbons, and he received a use-of-force report about Officer Martin's shooting at Mr. James. (Id. ¶¶ 51, 71, 86.) The investigator both times determined that Officer Martin was justified in his use of force on Mr. Gibbons, and the report concerning Mr. James concluded that Officer Martin acted appropriately. (Id. ¶¶ 53, 72, 86.) Chief McBride adopted each of these findings, and Plaintiff alleges that he did so to avoid punishing Officer Martin. (See id. SISI 91-93.)

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit in February 2014 asserting various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Martin and Chief McBride in their individual and official capacities. Since then, Plaintiff has stipulated that his official-capacity claims fail and has dismissed all but two counts: (1) an excessive-force claim against Officer Martin; and (2) a supervisory-liability claim against Chief McBride. Chief McBride now moves to dismiss the claim against him.[4]

         II. Legal Standard

         In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The Court must accept as true all facts alleged in the complaint and construe all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Hoffman-Pugh v. Ramsey, 312 F.3d 1222, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002). The Court, however, need not accept legal conclusions as true, only well-pleaded facts. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009).

         A complaint also must "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 678 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A plaintiff is required to plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id.

         III. Discussion

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff may hold a government official liable for causing the deprivation of a constitutional right. Plaintiff seeks to hold Chief McBride liable for Officer Martin's actions under a supervisory-liability theory. Chief McBride moves to dismiss that claim, asserting qualified immunity.

         "Qualified immunity offers complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct 'does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known/" Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). For qualified immunity to be available, a government official must show that he was acting within his discretionary authority at the time of the allegedly wrongful act. Id. Once he has done that, "the ...

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