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Williams v. Strickland

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Beaufort Division

March 1, 2018

Johnnie Williams, Plaintiff,
Lance Corporal Kyle Strickland and Raymond S. Heroux, Defendants.


          PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on each Defendant's motion for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 170 & 171). For the reasons set forth herein, both motions are denied.


         This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is based on Williams' allegations that officers from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office used excessive force against him when they arrested him on June 29, 2012. According to Williams' second amended complaint, he and his son were traveling from Savannah, Georgia to Beaufort, South Carolina to visit a family member. Williams stopped for gas when he and his son arrived in Beaufort. While at the gas station, Anthony Ancrum asked Williams for a ride to the Canal Street Apartments, and Williams agreed. Ancrum got in the back seat because Williams' son was in the front seat. Once he arrived at the apartments, Williams alleges that Defendants opened fire on his car without warning, firing from multiple directions. He states that he was struck in the back by a bullet, that he panicked, and that he briefly lost control of his vehicle as a result of his fear and his wound.

         Defendants allege the following additional details in support of their motion. According to them, officers Strickland, Criddle, and Heroux[1] were assigned to a drug task force and were working on June 29, 2012. Around 9:00 PM, Heroux saw Williams' car and ran the registration tag through Beaufort County Dispatch. He learned that the tag had been stolen, and was told to stop Williams' car. When Williams turned into the Canal Apartments where Ancrum lived, Heroux activated his blue lights and siren. Williams initially stopped, and then drove toward the rear of the apartment complex. Williams then stopped the car in a parking space and Heroux got out of his car and approached the driver's door. Strickland and Criddle arrived at the scene and also got out of their vehicle. When Heroux was ten feet away from Williams' car, the Williams looked at Heroux, turned the wheels to the right, and quickly reversed his car, causing the front end of the car to violently whip around in Heroux's direction. Heroux stepped back toward his car and claims that he believed Williams was trying to run him over. Heroux drew his duty weapon and started to approach Williams' car again. Strickland also started walking up to the car at the same time. Williams then swerved towards Heroux, straightened out the car, and then accelerated toward Strickland. Heroux claims to have believed Strickland's life was in danger and fired three or four times at Williams. Strickland also fired three or four shots, allegedly into the front windshield.

         After the shooting was over, Williams' car crashed into a small tree and the engine stopped. The officers approached the vehicle and saw that Williams and Ancrum had been shot. The officers handcuffed Williams and Ancrum, and Williams asked them why they had shot him. Heroux responded, saying that Williams had tried to kill him by running him over. While Williams claimed not to have tried to run Heroux over, Ancrum stated, “Yeah you did!” (Mot. Summ. J., Statement Cpl. Raymond S. Heroux, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, ECF No. 170-5, at 2.) The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (“SLED”) took Heroux's and Strickland's duty weapons at the scene, and Williams and Ancrum were transported to the hospital.


         To grant a motion for summary judgment, a court must find that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The judge is not to weigh the evidence but rather must determine if there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). All evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990). “[I]t is ultimately the nonmovant's burden to persuade [the court] that there is indeed a dispute of material fact. It must provide more than a scintilla of evidence-and not merely conclusory allegations or speculation-upon which a jury could properly find in its favor.” CoreTel Va., LLC v. Verizon Va., LLC, 752 F.3d 364, 370 (4th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). “[W]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate.” Teamsters Joint Council No. 83 v. Centra, Inc., 947 F.2d 115, 119 (4th Cir. 1991). Summary judgment is not “a disfavored procedural shortcut, ” but an important mechanism for weeding out “claims and defenses [that] have no factual basis.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).


         The Court will address each Defendant's motion in turn, except when the two motions overlap. First, however, the Court sets forth the legal framework for its analysis.

         Section 1983 “is not itself a source of substantive rights, ” but merely provides “a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144, n.3 (1979). An excessive force claim brought under § 1983 implicates the Fourth Amendment, which governs claims of excessive force during the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a person. Schultz v. Braga, 455 F.3d 470, 476-77 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386, 388 (1989)).

         It is well-settled that an arrest “by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7 (1985). The reasonableness of a search is analyzed “by balancing the extent of the intrusion against the need for it.” Id. at 7-8. Fourth Amendment claims of excessive use of force during an arrest are considered under an “objective reasonableness” standard. Graham, 490 U.S. at 399 (citations omitted); Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc); Culosi v. Bullock, 596 F.3d 195, 201 (4th Cir. 2010). A court's determination of what is objectively reasonable depends on the conditions that exist at the time the alleged excessive force is used, recognizing that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. “[R]easonableness is evaluated from the perspective of the officer on the scene, not through the more leisurely lens of hindsight.” Abney v. Coe, 493 F.3d 412, 415 (4th Cir. 2007) (citing Graham, 490 U.S. at 396-97; Milstead v. Kibler, 243 F.3d 157, 163 (4th Cir. 2001)). When determining objective reasonableness, a court must consider “whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.” Garner, 471 U.S. at 8-9. Thus, the court must “focus on the facts and circumstances of each case, taking into account ‘the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.'” Yates v. Terry, 817 F.3d 877, 885 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 396).

         Heroux and Strickland also assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Determining whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity is a two-step process. Id. at 232. “First, a court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged . . . or shown . . . make out a violation of a constitutional right.” Id. (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). “Second, if the plaintiff has satisfied this first step, the court must decide whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.” Id. (citing Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201).

         The Court addresses Strickland's motion first. He argues that the evidence shows he did not fire the shot that hit Williams, that it was objectively reasonable to use deadly force under the circumstances, and that, in the alternative, he is entitled to qualified immunity. Strickland bases his arguments on judicial estoppel-contending that Williams is precluded from asserting facts that ...

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