Appeals Court Denies Immunity To Cop Who Broke A Truck Driver's Jaw During A 'Routine Accident Investigation'

from the maybe-it-would-have-been-better-to-leave-the-dashcam-ON? dept

There is perhaps no sentence that defines the state of policing in America more than this one, which opens up this opinion [PDF] by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals:

Moses Stryker was tased, beaten, and left with a broken jaw after a routine accident investigation by City of Homewood police officers spiraled out of control.

Beaten, tased, left with a broken jaw… all after a "routine traffic investigation." In America, we escalate. What could be "routine" far too often turns into a civil rights lawsuit. Or someone's death. Why? For a few reasons. First, training of cops often revolves around the idea that everyone they face is a potential threat, even when the person is just calling for help.

Second, qualified immunity protects all but the most criminal of cops. The Supreme Court's reductio ad absurdum says courts only need to look at established precedent, rather than the facts at hand. Even seemingly clear-cut cases of excessive force/rights violations can be excused if no cop has violated rights exactly this way in the past. Cutting out this step -- the one that determines whether a rights violation has actually occurred -- leads to less precedent declaring these actions to be a clear violation of rights. The void that should be filled with precedent is instead filled with exonerative court decisions claiming this all looks bad but isn't a definite rights violation, no matter how much it appears to be one.

That's how we end up here: routine accident investigations morphing into excessive force deployments. And cop shops won't police their own because snitches get stitches and it's easier to keep bad cops around then follow through with discipline.

Here's all we need to know about this interaction, in which multiple narratives are still under dispute. Nearly indisputable evidence is almost always just a recording away, but cops seem to prefer operating under the cover of darkness. Cameras are everywhere… everywhere but where a cop wants to handle something unobserved.

Early one morning, Moses Stryker, a commercial truck driver, was training another man to drive on a highway near Birmingham, Alabama. Shortly before 2:00 A.M., the pair arrived at their delivery destination—a Walmart store in Homewood, Alabama. While Stryker (who at this point was driving) attempted to maneuver the truck in the parking lot to reach the loading dock, a woman parked her car in front of the truck in an apparent attempt to block it from moving. The woman accused the men of hitting her car on the highway and said that she had already summoned the police.

Officer Jason Davis, a City of Homewood police officer, was the first to arrive on scene. Although his vehicle was equipped with a dash camera, he turned it off when he arrived.

That's how you know you're going to get the best protecting/serving: when a cop turns off his camera before interacting with you. There are zero reasons to turn off a camera. Video redaction isn't some sorcery years away from practical use. If a cop turns off a camera, it's because they want to engage in behavior citizens (and possibly courts) might find abusive.

That's what happened here. And while the facts are still in dispute, one fact that cannot be disputed is that Officer Davis had a chance to record this whole interaction and provide evidence that backed his narrative but affirmatively chose not to.

The truck driver asked the officer if he could park in a lighted area of the parking lot rather than the dark area Officer Davis directed him to. This was the response he got from the officer:

According to Stryker, Officer Davis became angry and threatened to “lock [his] ass up” if he did not “shut up.”

More fine police service/protection here. Things got worse for Stryker from there, according to the truck driver's testimony. Officer Davis called more law enforcement officers in because he felt the accident might have occurred outside of his jurisdiction. Stryker, however, had some concerns of his own. His company required documentation of any accidents. So, he took his phone out and began taking pictures of the woman's car and his truck.

Unbeknownst to Stryker, Officer Davis had already decided there should be no record of this encounter by shutting off his cruiser's dash cam. Stryker's attempt to document the accident scene apparently enraged the officer, who was trying to handle this off the (recorded) books.

As Stryker began moving back to his truck, Davis shoved him and asked what he was holding. Stryker said it was his camera, and Davis instructed him to put it away. When Stryker attempted to comply by putting the camera in his pocket, Davis drew his pistol and pointed it at him. Stryker explained to the officer that he was just putting his camera away, and Davis holstered his weapon.

This wasn't the end of Officer Davis' attempts to "control" the scene. Seeing a camera where the officer expected no cameras to be led to additional abuse.

Stryker turned to return to his truck. Without warning, and without telling Stryker that he was under arrest, Officer Davis shot him in the back with a taser and kicked him when he fell to the ground. After the unexpected tasing, Stryker was afraid and tried to get away. He crawled to his truck and attempted to climb the stairs to the cab, but Davis caught up and struck him multiple times in the face—breaking his jaw and causing him to bleed. Stryker was able to get himself into the cab and locked the door, but Davis tased him again through the open window. Stryker managed to close the window and put his hands on the dash to show that he was not a threat and was not trying to escape, but Davis broke out the window with his baton. Davis then went over to the passenger side of the cab and resumed his attempts to pull Stryker out of the truck. At some point in the melee, Stryker was pepper sprayed.

Routine. Traffic. Stop.

Officer Davis told a different story -- one backed by nothing more than his deliberate failure to record the encounter. In his version, Stryker was the unpredictable aggressor who needed to be handled with the deployment of force. The additional officers called to the scene told a different story as well, although they admitted to "striking" the truck driver on his "head and neck several times," supposedly to "gain compliance."

This all could have been settled already if Officer Davis had left his camera on. But he didn't. And when there are competing narratives, the court should err on the side of the complainant until all the facts are in. The lower court did not do this. So, there's no qualified immunity for the officers. At least, not yet.

Very little is clear about exactly what happened in the early morning hours after Stryker arrived at Walmart. The officers articulate a version of events that justifies their use of force. Stryker tells a story that presents a clear constitutional violation. Resolving that dispute is for a trial, not summary judgment.

A footnote points out this could have been more easily resolved but Officer Davis prevented that from happening.

As an additional point, this Court in Draper was able to review the video footage from the arresting officer’s dash camera. 369 F.3d at 1273. Because Officer Davis turned off his camera while conducting this investigation, however, we do not have this option and are left to contemplate competing versions of the truth.

The concurring opinion adds this to the mix: something that separates "reasonable" officers and "unreasonable" officers. Officer Davis appears to be one of the latter:

This appeal turns on one page of the transcript of Stryker’s deposition. In the context of Stryker’s attempt to convince Officer Davis to permit photographs, an attorney asked Stryker, “[W]ould it surprise you if Officer Davis thought you were arguing with him at that moment?” Stryker answered, “Yes.” After a clarifying question, the attorney tried again: “[I]f you were in [Officer Davis’s] shoes and you were hearing the explanation that you were giving him after he told you no pictures, could you see why he might think you’re arguing with him?” Stryker answered, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

At the summary judgment stage, we must draw all reasonable inferences in Stryker’s favor. Even though his answer to the second question came perilously close to a concession that a reasonable officer could view the interaction as an argument, we must read the second answer in concert with the first. And reading the two answers together, it is reasonable to infer that Stryker meant only that it would be unsurprising if Officer Davis interpreted the interaction as an argument, not that reasonable officers generally could hold that view.

Occam's Razor suggests Officer Davis -- for whatever reason -- did not want this interaction recorded. The sudden introduction of recording equipment provoked this unreasonable response. And if Davis ends up on the losing end of a jury trial, he has only himself to blame. This could have been recorded. Davis' decision to terminate his own recording means he gets no qualified immunity. That's the way it should be. "Routine accident investigations" shouldn't escalate into situations where someone gets hospitalized.

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Filed Under: 11th circuit, body camera, homewood, jason davis, moses stryker, police, police brutality, qualified immunity


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    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:18am

    Put an empty line between the quoted portion and your text. Techdirt’s Markdown implementation treats line breaks as line breaks.


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