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Dickey v. Knoxville Police Dep't

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

August 21, 2019

JAWON DICKEY, Plaintiff,
v.
KNOXVILLE POLICE DEP'T, and TRAVIS BAKER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THOMAS W. PHILLIPS, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Travis Baker's Motion for Summary Judgment [doc. 23]. After the Court granted a motion to defer ruling pending limited discovery [doc. 36], Plaintiff has now responded [doc. 39], and Defendant Baker has replied [doc. 40]. For the reasons stated below, Defendant Baker's Motion for Summary Judgment [doc. 23] will be denied.

         I. Relevant Facts

         In 2017, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a pro se complaint, naming the Knoxville Police Department (“KPD”) and Officer Baker as defendants. [Doc. 2]. Plaintiff used a form complaint for civil rights violations, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. [Id.]. In describing the facts of his case, Plaintiff stated: “Officer Baker grabbed me. He was called about someone else blocks away that wasn't me. I got off my bus and was on my way home. He beat me and knocked out my front tooth. Its [sic] on video. He punched me in the face 3-4 times.” [Id. at 3-4]. Under the section for requesting relief, Plaintiff stated “Im [sic] poor and need dental care, he knocked my tooth out and all I was doing was walking home.” [Id. at 5]. Thereafter, Plaintiff obtained counsel, who entered an appearance on Plaintiff's behalf. [Doc. 7]. The Court later dismissed Plaintiff's claims against the KPD. [Doc. 19].

         On the night of December 26, 2016, at around 9:47 p.m., Officer Baker, who was a patrol officer with the KPD, received a dispatch call regarding a report of a suspicious person walking down an alley and shining a flashlight. [Doc. 23-1 at 1; Doc. 39-2 at 6]. The report from the 911 call received that night indicates that the caller advised that a suspicious black male, wearing jeans, a white shirt, and white shoes was in an alley with a flashlight. [Doc. 39-4 at 2].

         Officer Baker responded at approximately 10:35 p.m., and observed Plaintiff walking in front of the Pizza Palace on East Magnolia Avenue, which is located a short distance from where the initial 911 call was made. [Doc. 23-1 at 1-2]. When Officer Baker first spotted Plaintiff, he was in a back alley, “not walking in a purposeful direction.” [Doc. 39-3 at 10]. Officer Baker then pulled his cruiser around to the parking lot of Pizza Palace to confront Plaintiff. [Id. at 9-10]. When Officer Baker pulled into the Pizza Palace parking lot, he did not turn on the lights or sirens on his police cruiser. [Id. at 11]. Upon Officer Baker approaching him, Plaintiff was immediately non-compliant with Officer Baker's verbal commands. [Doc. 23-1 at 2]. Plaintiff was not under arrest, but he was being detained because Officer Baker believed he had reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff was an individual surveying closed businesses. [Doc. 39-3 at 16]. However, Officer Baker did not tell Plaintiff this information, and did not recall ever telling Plaintiff why he was being questioned. [Id.]. Officer Baker asserts that, during their interaction, Plaintiff was putting his hands in his pockets, and Officer Baker became concerned whether Plaintiff had a weapon. [Doc. 23-1 at 2; Doc. 39-3 at 17]. At some point, Officer Baker began telling Plaintiff to “get on the ground, ” because Plaintiff was allegedly imposing himself on Officer Baker's personal space, which made Officer Baker nervous. [Doc. 39-3 at 19]. Officer Baker also withdrew his taser and repeatedly threatened to “pop” Plaintiff, by which he meant using his taser. [Id. at 20]. Officer Baker stated that he retrieved his taser in response to the imminent physical threat from Plaintiff. Officer Baker admitted that he never even asked Plaintiff for his name, asserting that he never had a chance. [Id.]. Officer Baker stated that he would have explained the situation better to Plaintiff if he had a chance to without Plaintiff being physically imposing and verbally aggressive. [Id. at 22-23].

         Because Plaintiff was noncompliant with his commands, Officer Baker called for backup. [Doc. 23-1 at 4]. Officer Roger Simmons received the request for backup around 10:38 p.m., and concluded, from Officer Baker's tone of voice, that he was encountering a tense and rapidly-developing situation that required immediate assistance. [Doc. 23-2 at 1]. Upon Officer Simmons' arrival, he exited his police cruiser and told Plaintiff “you better f***ing listen to him, dude.” [Doc. 39-3 at 29-30]. Officer Simmons and Officer Baker then immediately attempted to take control of Plaintiff's hands. [Doc. 23-1 at 4; Doc. 23-2 at 2]. Officer Baker asserts that he still had no chance to tell Plaintiff that he was being detained at this point. [Doc. 39-3 at 31]. According to Officers Baker and Simmons, Plaintiff forcefully resisted being detained, including: (1) refusing to put his hands behind his back; (2) attempting to pull away from the officers; and (3) swinging at Officer Baker twice with a closed fist, the first of which struck Officer Baker in the right jaw. [Doc. 23-1 at 4; Doc. 23-2 at 2; Doc. 39-5 at 3]. Officer Baker stated that Plaintiff struck him in the face with his left hand, and Officer Baker had a red mark on his chin from the strike. [Doc. 39-3 at 37]. In response, Officer Baker struck Plaintiff with a closed fist approximately five to six times in the face until Plaintiff fell to the ground and was neutralized. [Doc. 23-1 at 4; Doc. 23-2 at 2; Doc. 39-5 at 3]. Thereafter, the officers took Plaintiff into custody and charged him with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. [Doc. 23-1 at 4; Doc. 23-2 at 2].

         Prior to his encounter with Officer Baker, Plaintiff had stayed at his home, which he shared with his mother and younger siblings, most of the day, which was the day after Christmas. [Doc. 39-2 at 12-14, 16]. Around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., Plaintiff left to go to the Wal-Mart at University Commons. [Id. at 12-13]. Plaintiff was wearing a white shirt, black jacket, white below-the-knee shorts, and light gray tennis shoes. [Id. at 28-29]. Plaintiff took the bus from the bus stop near his house to the Wal-Mart. [Id. at 17-18]. Plaintiff was looking for a specific charger for his phone, but could not find it at the Wal-Mart. [Id. at 17]. Plaintiff then took the bus home, and got off the bus on Magnolia Avenue at the stop just past the Pilot, in front of a tobacco store. [Id. at 18-19]. Plaintiff was carrying a plastic bag. [Id. at 19]. Plaintiff intended to walk directly home, which was a 15- or 20-minute walk from the bus stop. [Id.]. Before walking home, however, Plaintiff stopped in the alley (which he generally walks through to go home from the bus stop) to call his mother and tell her that he was on his way home. [Id. at 20]. At that point, he was approached by Officer Baker in his police cruiser. [Id.]. Plaintiff states that Officer Baker indicated that he wanted Plaintiff to come over to his cruiser “I guess so he could, you know, talk to me, search me, whatever, ” but Plaintiff felt harassed and did not think Officer Baker should have stopped him. [Id. at 20-21]. Plaintiff also states that he felt threatened and scared because he did not know what Officer Baker was going to do. [Id. at 21]. Plaintiff further states that he felt that it was “not right” that Officer Baker never told him why he was being detained. [Id. at 22]. Plaintiff admits that he never permitted Officer Baker to pat him down, but states that he did not resist efforts to be handcuffed and did not strike, or try to strike, Officer Baker. [Id. at 23-24]. Plaintiff reiterates that he did not hit Officer Baker in the face, or anywhere else. [Id. at 24]. Plaintiff states that he did not obey Officer Baker's verbal commands because he was scared and felt threatened. [Id. at 26]. Plaintiff admits that he ultimately pled guilty to disorderly conduct. [Doc. 39-2 at 28; Doc. 40-1 at 1].

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Moore v. Phillip Morris Cos., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993). All facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 310 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002). “Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations.” Curtis Through Curtis v. Universal Match Corp., 778 F.Supp. 1421, 1423 (E.D. Tenn. 1991) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. 317). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id.

         The Court's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question for the factfinder. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Nor does the Court search the record “to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, “the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

         III. Analysis

         Officer Baker asserts that he is entitled to qualified immunity as to Plaintiff's excessive force claim, asserting that the force he used during Plaintiff's arrest was objectively reasonable, in response to the immediate threat posed by Plaintiff. [Doc. 24 at 8-12]. Officer Baker asserts that he used only the force necessary to subdue Plaintiff. [Id. at 12]. Officer Baker also contends that the dashcam video evidence proves that Plaintiff punched, and attempted to punch, Officer Baker, and therefore, in construing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court should discount any assertion that Plaintiff did not strike, or attempt to strike, Officer Baker. [Id. at 9-10]. Officer Baker further asserts that Plaintiff's rights against the force used were not clearly established at the time of his arrest. [Id. at 13-14].

         Plaintiff responds that, under the objective reasonableness standard, Officer Baker violated Plaintiff's right to be free from excessive force. [Doc. 39 at 17]. Plaintiff highlights that he was, at the most, suspected of trespassing, which is neither a violent nor a serious offense. [Id. at 18]. Second, Plaintiff asserts that he posed no real or serious threat to Officer Baker's safety, and a reasonable jury could conclude that Plaintiff merely exhibited a passive showing of resistance. [Id. at 18-20]. Plaintiff contends that Officer Baker was only justified in using the amount of force that a reasonable officer could have believed was needed to end his passive resistance, which did not include grabbing him and punching him repeatedly in the face with enough force to knock out his front teeth. [Id. at 20]. Plaintiff also contends that Officer Baker failed to consider less intrusive options, and lists several ...


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