Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
Baker v. City of Madison, Alabama
11th Circuit Court of Appeals
5/3/23, Judge Hull
Topics: 1983 (Fourth Amendment); Excessive Force
This is a federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wherein Mr. Baker alleged three things: 1) Officer Nunez used excessive force in tasing him at the scene of an automobile wreck; 2) Officer Hose failed to intervene to prevent Officer Nunez from using excessive force; and 3) the City of Madison, Alabama, admitted that the officer’s actions were the result of its municipal policy.
The officers and the city moved to dismiss, relying on body camera footage from the officers.
After viewing the footage, the district court judge granted the motion to dismiss.
On appeal, Mr. Baker argued that the district court erred in dismissing the case based on bodycam footage without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment and in granting Officer Nunez qualified immunity. And, of course, the claims against the fellow officer and the city are all contingent upon the claim that the tasing was excessive force that was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The short version is that the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, so the key factors in the case were why Officer Nunez’s action in tasing Mr. Baker was not “excessive,” why he was entitled to qualified immunity, and why the case could revolve around a bodycam video at the motion-to-dismiss stage.
Mr. Baker is an epileptic who has frequent seizures. Mr. Baker was driving his car when he rear-ended the vehicle in front of him. In his Complaint, he alleged that by the time police and first responders arrived on the scene, Mr. Baker he was in the throes of a seizure. He alleged that both the passenger in his car and the paramedics on the scene fully explained to Officers Nunez and Hose that Mr. Baker was having a seizure and that he was not capable of fully understanding or responding to commands. Despite this, the officers ordered Mr. Baker to get on a gurney and to go the hospital. Mr. Baker declined and said he wanted to speak to his mother. He alleged that he was not physically combative. He alleged that even though both the paramedics and Mr. Baker’s friends assured the officers that his seizure would pass in a few minutes and that Mr. Baker could not fully understand them, the officers tased Mr. Baker “multiple times” while attempting to get him to lie on a gurney to go to the hospital.
Mr. Baker alleged that he was not combative, that he did not represent a danger to himself or others, and that he was tased simply for not getting on the gurney. He asked the city to discipline the officers, but the city responded that the officers’ actions were consistent with the city’s policy.
The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court that the bodycam footage “tells a different story.” First, the audio showed that the passenger was on the phone with someone and he stated he did not know if Mr. Baker “had a seizure or what, but he crossed the lane of traffic and rear-ended somebody.” The paramedic told Officer Reyez that there were three possibilities for Baker’s confusion: 1) substance abuse; 2) diabetic episode; or 3) a seizure, but he did not think it was a seizure. He planned to check Baker’s blood-sugar. Baker did not comply with the paramedic’s attempts to get him to lie on the stretcher or submit to a blood test for blood-sugar levels. He continually asked questions, told people to get off of him, threatened legal action, and then attempted forcibly to reenter his vehicle. Officer Nunes tried blocking his re-entry and tried to remove him from the set using his arm. He displayed the taser, but did not use it. When Officer Nunez pulled Baker out of the driver’s seat, Baker resisted, and the officer tased him in the stomach. Baker continued to try to get into his car, so the officer tased him again. Officer Hose (who had been sued for failure to intervene) was not on the scene at the time of the tasing, arriving about two minutes later. Three officers handcuffed Baker. Baker’s mother arrived on the scene, and the officers allowed Baker to leave with his mother.
So how does this stuff come in at the motion-to-dismiss stage? Generally, a judge can only consider the pleadings taken as true at the motion-to-dismiss stage. If the parties present, and the court considers, evidence outside the pleadings, the motion to dismiss generally must be converted into a motion for summary judgment. There are two exceptions to this “conversion rule”: (1) the incorporation-by-reference doctrine and (2) judicial notice. Both exceptions permit district courts to consider materials outside a complaint at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Only the incorporation by reference exception was at issue here. Evidence referred to in the complaint may be considered as incorporated by reference where (1) “the plaintiff refers to certain documents in the complaint,” (2) those documents are “central to the plaintiff’s claim,” and (3) the documents’ contents are undisputed. Evidence is “undisputed” in this context if its authenticity is unchallenged. Baker’s complaint referenced the bodycam footage, alleging that the video recording was a display of what happened. Also, Baker’s counsel asked the judge to allow him to put the video recording into evidence. Because the complaint incorporated the bodycam footage by reference and averred that it showed what really happened, the judge could consider it. The Eleventh Circuit briefly discussed whether the bodycam footage qualified as a “document,” and without truly explaining why it did, it just applied the three part test and found that the footage satisfied all three prongs, so they did not dwell on the fact that it was not something one would traditionally call a “document.”
In regard to the excessive force claim, there was not a clearly established right to not be tased when physically resisting officers and trying to reenter a car after causing a crash. Though Baker argued that the footage was open to interpretation, the courts disagreed, finding the video clear and finding that it contradicted Baker’s pleadings.
Officer Nunez was clearly within the scope of his authority (he was acting as a cop), so the burden was on Baker to show that qualified immunity did not apply. The officer used a taser a single time and did not inflict serious injury. He did it in the context of an investigation into a car accident.
(1) Baker repeatedly ignored instructions from Officer Nunez and the paramedics to sit down on the stretcher, (2) Baker failed to provide Officer Nunez with his driver’s license when requested, instead attempting to smoke a broken cigarette, (3) Baker ignored an instruction from one of the paramedics to lean against a concrete barrier on the road or against his vehicle, (4) Baker cursed at Officer Nunez,
(5) Baker broke free from Officer Nunez’s grip, and (6) Baker got back into the driver’s seat of his vehicle despite Officer Nunez’s commands not to do so. The use of the taser was deemed objectively reasonable.
The video showed that Hose was not on the scene, so even if the taser use had been excessive, Officer Hose would not have had the opportunity to intervene.
To establish municipal liability, a plaintiff must show that (1) his constitutional rights were violated, (2) the municipality had a policy (or custom) that constituted deliberate indifference to that constitutional right, and (3) the municipal policy (or custom) caused the violation. There was no constitutional violation, so the claim has to fail.