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Mitchell v. Schlabach

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

July 19, 2017

Ronald Joseph Mitchell, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Timothy Joseph Mitchell, deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Justin Schlabach, Officer, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan at Marquette. No. 2:15-cv-00016-Timothy P. Greeley, Magistrate Judge.

          Sima G. Patel, FIEGER, FIEGER, KENNEY, & HARRINGTON, P.C., Southfield, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Susan Healy Zitterman, Susan D. MacGregor, KITCH DRUTCHAS WAGNER VALITUTTI & SHERBROOK, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: MERRITT, MOORE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges


          MERRITT, Circuit Judge.

          Defendant-Appellee Justin Schlabach, an officer of the Munising Police Department, shot and killed Timothy Mitchell ("Mitchell") following a lengthy and dangerous car chase. The crucial facts at the scene of the shooting were recorded on the officer's dashboard camera, and our decision in this case turns in large measure on this evidence. Plaintiff-Appellant Ronald Mitchell filed this § 1983 suit against Schlabach on behalf of Mitchell's estate seeking damages for Schlabach's alleged violation of Mitchell's right to be free from excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. Schlabach moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, and the district court granted his motion. For the reasons articulated below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

         I. Background

         Since this is an appeal from an award of summary judgment, we view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party-here, Mitchell's personal representative. Coble v. City of White House, 634 F.3d 865, 868 (6th Cir. 2011). We also draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Id. However, we do not accept Plaintiff's facts to the extent that they are "blatantly contradicted by the record." Id. (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007)) (internal quotation marks omitted). There is no serious dispute about the facts of this case because a camera on the officer's dashboard captured most of the relevant event. What follows is an account of the facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff.

         A. Factual Background

         On July 14, 2014, the 911 dispatch center in Alger County, Michigan received a report that "Tim Mitchell" had assaulted another individual named Kevin and that he was "headed towards Christmas, " Michigan. The caller stated that Mitchell had been drinking and was "swerving all over the road." The dispatcher then contacted Schlabach-the only officer on duty at the time-and notified him that Mitchell was "pretty intoxicated" and had been "involved in a verbal altercation."

         Schlabach identified Mitchell's car on a highway and followed it into a parking lot. Mitchell brought his vehicle to a stop in the parking lot, and Schlabach made a show of authority by pulling his police cruiser up to the driver's side of Mitchell's car. As soon as Schlabach came to a stop, Mitchell sped back onto the highway in an effort to evade arrest. Schlabach pursued Mitchell as he careened through residential neighborhoods, around cars, and through stop signs. Large portions of the chase involved Mitchell traveling at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Inclement weather made the chase even more treacherous as it was pouring rain throughout the entirety of the pursuit. At one point, Mitchell "slammed on the brakes, " which Schlabach interpreted as an attempt to either "ram [him], or get [him] to break off th[e] pursuit." Schlabach requested backup at several points, and the dispatcher confirmed that at least two officers were en route to provide assistance.

         Ten minutes into the car chase, Mitchell ran his car into a roadside ditch in the middle of a national forest. Schlabach parked his car 63.6 feet from Mitchell's car, where he assessed the situation "to see what's [Mitchell] doing next, where's he gonna go, does he have a weapon, what's going on, is the vehicle in [sic] fire." Mitchell exited the car, looked toward Schlabach's vehicle, and then turned away while he pulled up his pants and crouched toward the ground. Mitchell appeared to be unarmed when he left his vehicle, and Schlabach did not observe anything indicating that Mitchell had a weapon.

         Schlabach exited his vehicle into the pouring rain, drew his handgun, and began slowly approaching Mitchell. Schlabach claims that he gave loud, verbal commands as he approached Mitchell: "Stop, get down, get down on the ground, get down on the f-ing ground." In response, Mitchell turned around and began walking toward Schlabach. Schlabach described Mitchell as walking "aggressively"-that is, with "[c]lenched fists, wide eyes, coming directly in my- towards me, . . . refusing to listen to any of my direct commands." And while the dash-cam video does not clearly show Mitchell's facial expressions or whether his fists were clenched, it leaves little room to doubt the hostility of Mitchell's approach. Indeed, Mitchell headed straight toward Schlabach with long, purposeful steps despite the fact that Schlabach was pointing a gun directly at him. Mitchell continued toward Schlabach even after Schlabach began backing away in fear. Schlabach stated in a deposition that while Mitchell was approaching him, "He told me I was gonna have to f---ing shoot him, " which Schlabach took to mean, "if I didn't shoot him, he was gonna kill me . . . [w]ith his fists, with his feet, with my gun, with anything he possibly could've gotten at the time."

         Schlabach took five hurried steps backward in an attempt to keep distance between himself and Mitchell. After Mitchell had pressed Schlabach all the way across the road and the gap between the two had narrowed to "somewhere between 10 and 21 feet, " Schlabach fired a shot at Mitchell. Mitchell hunched over slightly, but continued moving purposefully toward Schlabach. Less than one second after firing the first shot and after taking two more steps back, Schlabach fired again. After the second shot, Mitchell hunched over further and turned around. He staggered for several steps back toward his vehicle before collapsing to the ground. Schlabach then holstered his weapon and handcuffed Mitchell. After running to turn off his siren, Schlabach returned to see if Mitchell still had a pulse. An autopsy later confirmed that Mitchell died from the two gunshot wounds inflicted by Schlabach.

         Before proceeding with our analysis, we note that the situation escalated rapidly from the time Schlabach exited his car to the time he shot Mitchell. While we needed two paragraphs to describe what happened during the intervening time, it all unfolded in less than twenty seconds. In such situations, we are admonished to make an "allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments" when we review their actions for purposes of qualified immunity. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97 (1989).

         B. Procedural Background

         Ronald Mitchell, the personal representative of the decedent Mitchell's estate, filed a complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Schlabach violated Mitchell's Fourth Amendment rights when he "unlawfully seized and used unnecessary, unreasonable, excessive, and deadly force against" Mitchell. Schlabach then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he was entitled to qualified immunity and that he did not violate Mitchell's civil rights. The lower court granted Schlabach's motion, finding that Schlabach was entitled to qualified immunity both because the facts did not amount to a constitutional violation and because any right that Schlabach might have violated was not "clearly established" at the time of the shooting.

         This appeal followed.

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues on appeal that the district court committed two reversible errors when it granted Schlabach's motion for summary judgment: First, Plaintiff contends that the lower court wrongly held that the allegations in his complaint did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Second, Plaintiff argues that the lower court erred in holding that the constitutional right in question was not "clearly established" at the time of the shooting. Because we agree with the district court's conclusions on both issues, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

         We review an award of summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity de novo. Clay v. Emmi, 797 F.3d 364, 369 (6th Cir. 2015). As discussed above, we view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Coble, 634 F.3d at 868.

         The doctrine of qualified immunity protects "government officials performing discretionary functions . . . 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." Miller v. Sanilac Cty., 606 F.3d 240, 247 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). To determine if a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, we ask two questions: "First, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, has the plaintiff shown that a constitutional violation has occurred? Second, was the right clearly established at the time of the violation?" Id. Government officials are protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity unless the answer to both questions is yes. See id.

         A. Has Plaintiff Shown a ...

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