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YATES v. TERRY, No. 15-1555

Decided: March 31, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

In 2008, the plaintiff, Brian Yates, was driving on a highway in North Charleston, South Carolina. His brother and mother were following him in another vehicle. Yates drove past two police cruisers when one of the cruisers driven by the defendant, Blair Terry, pulled out and began to follow Yates. Yates pulled over and Terry approached and asked Yates for his driver’s license. The plaintiff responded he did not have his license but did have military identification. Terry opened Yates’ door and forced Yates out of the car. Around this time, Yates’ mother and brother arrived at the gas station. Yates was forced to place his hands on the car and Terry informed Yates that he was under arrest. Yates inquiry for the basis of the arrest was left unexplained by Terry. Terry began to deploy his taser in “probe mode” causing Yates to fall to the ground. Yates’ brother asked why Terry tased Yates and Terry responded by threatening to call for back up. Terry tased Yates while Yates was still on the ground two more times which caused Yate’s mother to pass out. Other officers arrived and placed Yates into handcuffs. Yates was charged with excessive noise violation, no license in possession, and disorderly conduct. In 2011, Yates filed this action in state court alleging multiple state and federal claims against the defendant. The suit was moved to federal court and defendant made a motion for summary judgment, which was granted in part except against Terry in his individual capacity for use of excessive force. Eventually in 2015, the parties filed a stipulation of dismissal as to all claims except for the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for excessive force against Terry. This appeal followed.

The court first determined if Terry was entitled to qualified immunity using a two-step inquiry set forth by the Supreme Court in Saucier v. Katz. The first step is to determine if the facts establish that the officer violated a constitutional right. The second step determines whether that constitutional right was clearly established. The Fourth Amendment bars police officers from using excessive force and courts evaluate a claim of excessive force based on an “objective reasonableness” standard. The court must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion to the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake. To do this the court can use the three factors from Graham v. Connor. The factors are the severity of the crime, 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. The court determined that a minor traffic violation is not a severe crime. Yates was unarmed and complied with Terry’s instructions before Terry began to use his taser so the evidence does not support an inference that Yates was a danger to Terry or anyone else. Yates was not attempting to flee from Terry and he never attempted to get up after he fell to the ground by Terry’s first taser application. The Graham analysis shows that Terry was not being objectionable reasonable and thus Yates’ fourth amendment constitutional rights were violated. The court determined that it was clearly established that a police officer was not entitled to use disproportionate force by repeatedly tasing a nonviolent misdemeanant who presented no threat to the safety of the officer or the public and who was compliant and not actively resisting arrest or fleeing. Based on Yates’ constitutional right being violated and it being clearly established at the time of Terry’s actions, the district court’s denial of Terry’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is affirmed.

Full Opinion

Ryan Jones