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Hunter v. City of Leeds

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 1, 2019

RONALD HUNTER, JR., Plaintiff - Appellee,
CITY OF LEEDS, as a person under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, BYRON JACKSON, Chief of Police, individually and in his official capacity, ROBERT KIRK, RON REAVES, JOHN SHIELDS, BRIAN CHALIAN, Officers, each individually and in his official capacity, Defendants - Appellants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cv-02266-KOB

          Before TJOFLAT, NEWSOM, and GILMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.

          TJOFLAT, Circuit Judge

         In this case, an armed individual, suspected of being involved in a shooting, was shot by a police officer at the conclusion of a four-car police chase. The suspect brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all the officers involved in the pursuit, claiming that the shooting constituted excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment;[1] he also raised various other state-law claims related to the shooting. The officers, in response, alleged that the force was justified because the suspect pointed his gun at the officer who shot him after being ordered to drop it, and alternatively that they are immune from suit under qualified immunity and Alabama's state-law discretionary-function immunity.

         The officers moved for summary judgment on all counts on the grounds of qualified and state-law immunity. The District Court denied their motion in large part. They now appeal.[2] We affirm the District Court's decision with respect to the one officer who shot the suspect but reverse as to the remaining officers.


         The events leading up to Ronald Hunter, Jr.'s Fourth Amendment claim stem from a domestic quarrel that turned violent. That episode occurred on December 16, 2013, in an apartment complex in the City of Leeds, Alabama, where Anthony Roberson and Tammy Miller (the latter being Roberson's wife and Hunter's daughter) lived. Hunter came to the residence in somewhat of a rage, armed with a gun. Hunter and Roberson argued, and the dispute escalated when Hunter drew his gun. Roberson, also armed, fired several shots at Hunter.

         The Leeds Police Department received two 911 calls. The first caller screamed incessantly, and the only thing the 911 operator could make out was "Frisco Avenue." Officer Robert Kirk and Sergeant Ron Reaves were dispatched to the Frisco Avenue neighborhood but found nothing. The second call came about thirty minutes later. The caller said that a man was holding a child hostage at gunpoint at the Marlee Villa Apartments. Kirk and Reaves were again dispatched to the scene, along with Officer Brian Chalian. While en route, the dispatcher informed the officers that shots had been fired at the apartment, and that one of the men involved, Hunter, was sitting in his car, a yellow Monte Carlo, on Frisco Avenue in front of the apartment complex.

          When Kirk, Reaves, and Chalian arrived at the Marlee Villa Apartments, each in a separate patrol car, they found Hunter sitting in the Monte Carlo with the windows up. According to the officers, Kirk drew his gun and ordered Hunter to show his hands. Hunter did not comply. Hunter appeared to be yelling, but Kirk and Reaves couldn't make out what he was saying. While Hunter admits that he saw the police arrive, he denies seeing Kirk draw his gun or hearing any order to show his hands. He thought the officers had come to arrest Roberson for shooting at him, so he drove away, headed toward his home at 8101 Jackson Avenue.

         Kirk, Reaves, and Chalian pursued him to his residence. The Chief of Police, Byron Jackson, was in his office when the second 911 call came. When he learned that Hunter had left the scene and that the three officers were pursuing him, he joined the chase.

         There is some disagreement as to the nature of the chase. The officers maintain that Hunter sped, drove erratically and in the opposing lane, and ran a red light and a stop sign. Kirk claims that Hunter pointed a gun through his back window at Kirk's patrol car; he informed the other officers over the radio that he saw a gun in Hunter's hand. Hunter denies seeing or hearing the police following him, denies that he was driving recklessly, and denies ever pointing his gun or making it visible to anyone.

          On arriving at his residence, Hunter parked in the carport behind the house. Kirk drove into the driveway and stopped short of the carport. He got out of his patrol car and ordered Hunter, who was sitting in the driver's seat, to show his hands. When Kirk observed Hunter looking down toward his lap, he repositioned himself behind a large tree near the carport, 20 to 25 feet away from Hunter's car. Again, he ordered Hunter to show his hands. Hunter failed to do so and, instead, shifted from the driver's seat of his car to the passenger's seat and opened the door. As he opened the door, Kirk claims Hunter turned and pointed his gun at Kirk, so Kirk fired.

         By this time, Jackson had pulled into the driveway, parked his car, and taken a position alongside the house, using it for cover. He could see Kirk standing a few yards ahead behind the tree with his weapon drawn. A moment later, as Jackson approached the edge of the house, he saw Kirk shoot in Hunter's direction.

         Reaves heard the first round of shots as he was getting out of his patrol car on Jackson Avenue-he had driven past Hunter's residence to cut off a potential escape route. Chalian also heard the shots while parking his patrol car on Moore Street, which ran alongside Hunter's residence.

         Kirk fired "approximately three rounds." Hunter recoiled into his car and then reached back out for the door. According to Kirk, Hunter still had the gun in his hand, and he pointed it at Kirk again. Hunter denies that he pointed the gun at Kirk; instead, he says he dropped the gun through the open door. Kirk, acting on his impression that Hunter had the gun in his hand, fired several more shots. A total of ten bullet casings, all matching Kirk's service weapon, were ultimately recovered from the scene.

         At this point, Jackson had not changed his position; he was still behind the residence, using it for cover. Reaves, meanwhile, had moved toward Kirk. He heard Kirk tell Hunter to drop the gun, and then saw Kirk fire the second round of shots, but still could not see Hunter from where he was. Chalian was still on the other side of the house, between the house and Moore Street, when the second round of shots was fired.

         After Kirk fired the second round of shots, Hunter fell back into his car. Jackson then approached the car on the passenger side, directing Kirk to cover him. He saw Hunter slumped in the passenger seat and a gun on the front transmission tunnel. He grabbed Hunter's right hand, pulled him out of the car, and told Reaves to call the paramedics. An ambulance arrived, and Hunter was taken to the hospital where he received medical care. Officer John Shields, who had been on duty elsewhere, came to the scene as Hunter was being placed in the ambulance.

         Hunter disputes most of the officers' descriptions of the shooting. He claims that he tried to open his driver-side door, but it was jammed, so he moved to the passenger side of the car. Once he opened the passenger door, he was shot in the stomach. He heard someone order him to throw out his gun, so he dropped it through the opening of the door. When he opened the door wider to exit the vehicle, he "heard shots from several directions" and was "shot multiple times." He denies that he ever pointed his gun at anyone while he was en route to his residence or after he arrived there.

         On January 14, 2014, a complaint was filed in the Jefferson County Circuit Court alleging that "Ronald Hunter did, with intent to commit the crime of murder . . . attempt to intentionally cause the death of another person, Robert Kirk, by pointing a pistol at Peace Officer Robert Kirk." A warrant issued for Hunter's arrest, and he was taken into custody. On June 20, 2014, Hunter was indicted for attempted murder for "pointing a pistol at Peace Officer Robert Kirk." In the interim, the Court had Hunter examined by a court-appointed psychiatrist to determine his competency to proceed and his mental state at the time of the offense. He was found to be "overtly psychotic" and not competent to proceed. The Court therefore committed him to the State Department of Mental Health for treatment. Hunter was admitted to the Taylor Hardin Medical Facility on July 17, 2014, and on September 30, 2014, the Court, acting on the Facility's report, found him competent to stand trial for attempted murder.

          In December 2015, while the prosecution was pending, Hunter brought this action against the officers involved in his apprehension, [3] and the City of Leeds, asserting the excessive-force claim now before us, as well as other federal and state-law claims.[4] On January 25, 2016, pursuant to a plea agreement, he pled guilty in the Circuit Court to the lesser-included offense of menacing.[5] Both the proposed plea agreement and the plea signed by the court indicate that Hunter pled guilty to "Att Murder reduced to Menacing."

          The officers jointly moved the District Court for summary judgment on two grounds.[6] First, Hunter's plea of guilty to the offense of menacing estopped him from denying that he pointed his gun at Kirk and therefore Kirk's response was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Second, and alternatively, Hunter's excessive-force claim could not be maintained because the officers were entitled to qualified and state-law immunity. The District Court denied the motion in large part, [7] holding with respect to Hunter's Fourth Amendment claim that he was not estopped from denying that he pointed his gun at Kirk, and thus that the officers were not entitled to immunity. The officers brought this interlocutory appeal contesting the District Court's denial of qualified immunity and state-law immunity from suit.[8]


         Before we can decide whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity based on their conduct, we must first determine what exactly that conduct was.[9] Although we must view the facts in the light most favorable to Hunter, as the non-moving party, the officers' primary argument on appeal is that the District Court erred in crediting Hunter's assertion that he never pointed his gun at Kirk or any of the officers. They argue that his guilty plea to menacing prevents him from relitigating whether he pointed his gun, on the ground of either judicial or collateral estoppel, or the Supreme Court's decision in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364 (1994). We conclude that collateral estoppel bars Hunter from asserting, contrary to his guilty plea, that he never pointed his gun at Kirk, but does not bar him from contesting Kirk's statements regarding the number of times that Hunter allegedly pointed his gun.

         To determine the preclusive effect of an Alabama criminal judgment, we must apply Alabama law. Brown v. City of Hialeah, 30 F.3d 1433, 1437 (11th Cir. 1994). In Alabama, collateral estoppel bars parties from relitigating a previously decided issue where (1) the issue and the parties are the same in both cases, (2) the issue was "actually litigated" in the prior case, and (3) the resolution of that issue was "necessary to the prior judgment." Leon C. Baker, P.C. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 821 So.2d 158, 162-63 (Ala. 2001). The "same-parties" prong may be satisfied if the party seeking the benefit of collateral estoppel is in privity with the party in the first suit, and the party to be estopped is bound by the previous judgment-i.e., was a party to the previous suit. Wood v. Kesler, 323 F.3d 872, 880 n.10 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing Leon C. Baker, 821 So.2d at 165). Alabama's expansive definition of privity "includes not only a successive interest to the same property right, but also 'an identity of interest in the subject matter of [the] litigation.'" Id. (quoting Leon C. Baker, 821 So.2d at 165).

         Here, the defendant officers were not parties to the criminal proceeding against Hunter in state court, which culminated in Hunter's guilty plea. However, we find that the officers shared an "identity of interest" with the State, and thus are in privity with the State for purposes of this suit. Our decision in Wood v. Kesler is instructive.

         In Wood, we found an "identity of interest" between the State, which prosecuted a criminal defendant, and the officer who arrested that defendant, in a § 1983 suit against the officer stemming from the arrest. 323 F.3d at 880 n.10. There, the defendant was cited for speeding 17 miles-per-hour over the speed limit and arrested for reckless driving. Id. at 875-76. A jury found him guilty of speeding, but not guilty of reckless driving. Id. at 876. He then sued the arresting officer under § 1983, claiming false arrest and malicious prosecution. Id. at 876- 77. We held that the defendant's conviction for speeding collaterally estopped him, under Alabama law, from denying that he had been driving 17 miles-per-hour over the speed limit in his § 1983 suit. Id. at 879. Although the arresting officer "was not a party in the prior case, [he] acted for the State in charging [the defendant] with speeding in the prior case and shares an identity of interest with the State in the subject matter of the litigation." Id. at 880 n.10. Thus, the arresting officer was in privity with the State, and the same-parties requirement was satisfied. Id.

         Likewise here, the officers "acted for the State" in pursuing and apprehending Hunter, and the "subject matter of the litigation" is identical to the subject matter of Hunter's criminal prosecution. Hunter's guilty plea and conviction for menacing were based on his conduct during the officers' pursuit and apprehension of Hunter, and Hunter's present § 1983 claims all center on the officers' conduct during that same pursuit and apprehension. Under these circumstances, where the events that form the basis of each case are identical, the officers and the State share an identity of interest in the allocation of rights and liabilities arising from that single episode. The officers were acting for the State during the pursuit and apprehension that resulted in Hunter's prosecution, and they share an interest with the State in ensuring that Hunter is held responsible for his actions during that encounter. Thus, the same-parties requirement is satisfied.[10]

          Additionally, the issue presented here-whether Hunter pointed his gun at Kirk-is identical to the issue presented, litigated, and decided in the Alabama criminal proceeding. The District Court reasoned that this issue was not necessarily decided by his guilty plea, because the record failed to indicate what "physical action" he committed to "intentionally place[ ] or attempt[ ] to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury." See Ala. Code § 13A- 6-23(a). Without a plea colloquy or other record evidence establishing the "physical action" taken by Hunter, the Court could not be sure that the basis for Hunter's menacing conviction was his pointing a gun at Kirk.

         But both the warrant and the initial indictment charged Hunter solely with "pointing a pistol at Peace Officer Kirk," and no other action. In Alabama, a guilty plea "is an admission of all facts sufficiently charged in the indictment," not just an admission to the crime in the abstract. G.E.G. v. State, 54 So.3d 949, 954 (Ala. 2010) (quoting Scott v. State, 917 So.2d 159, 166 (Ala.Crim.App.2005)). Of course, here Hunter pled guilty not to the crime charged in the indictment (attempted murder), but to the lesser-included offense of menacing. When a defendant enters a plea to a lesser-included offense, the indictment is implicitly amended to charge that lesser-included offense. Ex parte Cole, 842 So.2d 605, 608 (Ala. 2002); see Ala. R. Crim. P. 13.2(c) ("Specification of an offense in an indictment or information shall constitute a charge of that offense and of all lesser offenses necessarily included therein.").

         Nonetheless, the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure permit "only those amendments that charge a lesser-included offense," and defendants "cannot consent to an amendment that effectively charges an offense not contemplated by the indictment." Ex parte Cole, 842 So.2d at 608 (emphasis added); see Ala. R. Crim. P. 13.5(a) (permitting amendment "except to change the offense or to charge new offenses not contemplated by the original indictment"). Because the only physical action charged in the indictment here was Hunter's pointing a pistol at Kirk, it could not have been amended under Alabama law-formally or functionally-to add a different physical action.[11] Thus, the basis for Hunter's guilty plea to menacing necessarily was ...

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