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Perry v. Woodruff County Sheriff Department

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 5, 2017

Norris Perry Plaintiff- Appellee
Woodruff County Sheriff Department, By and through Stacy Barker and Freddie Hudson; Stacy Barker; Freddie Hudson, In His Individual and Official Capacity; McCroy Police Department; James R. Jackson; McCroy, City of; Doyle Fowler, McCroy Mayor, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Charles Dallas, Woodruff County Judge, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Woodruff County, Arkansas; Rowland Clark, Deputy Sheriff, In His Individual and Official CapacityDefendantsMargo Wolfe, Police Officer, In Her Individual and Official Capacity Defendant-AppellantBruce Golden, Sheriffs Deputy/Police Officer, Individually and in His Official Capacity; Clark, LT, Individually and in His/Her Official Capacity; John Does, 1 - 5, Individually and in their Official Capacity Defendants

          Submitted: April 7, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Helena

          Before GRUENDER, MURPHY, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Norris Perry sued multiple defendants employed by Woodruff County, Arkansas and the City of McCrory for an arrest that occurred on August 30, 2009. Perry alleged excessive-force, illegal-arrest, and illegal-search claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and related tort claims under Arkansas law. The district court[1] denied summary judgment to a number of defendants who took part in the incident, including City of McCrory Police Officer Margo Wolfe. Wolfe appealed, claiming that the district court erred when it concluded that she was not entitled to qualified immunity. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the night of August 30, 2009, Perry drove to his local carwash to clean his truck. Wolfe, who was off-duty and at her apartment, saw Perry from her back steps and called dispatch to investigate, as she believed that he was acting suspiciously. Woodruff County Deputy Sheriff Bruce Golden responded, arrived at the carwash, and parked behind Perry's truck. Perry approached Golden and asked if everything was alright. When Golden responded affirmatively, Perry returned to cleaning his truck. As Perry prepared to leave the carwash, Golden approached and asked Perry for his license and registration. Perry obliged without incident, and Golden checked for outstanding warrants. After finding no outstanding warrants, Golden returned Perry's documents but directed him to wait to talk with another officer. Perry questioned Golden about why another officer needed to talk to him but complied with the order.

         Shortly thereafter, City of McCrory Police Lieutenant Booker Pennington, Woodruff County Deputy Sheriff Rowland Clark, and Wolfe arrived on scene. Clark asked Golden if he had searched Perry for weapons. Golden conducted a pat-down and recovered a multi-tool knife in Perry's possession. Clark then approached Perry and instructed him to "spread eagle" for another pat-down. Perry complied but questioned the justification for the search. Perry testified that he did not act aggressively towards Clark or threaten Clark's safety. Perry also testified that, without any provocation, Clark stepped behind Perry, wrapped his arm around Perry's neck, lifted Perry off his feet, and knocked Perry to the ground, face first. Wolfe was twenty feet away, and she testified that she saw Perry turn in an aggressive manner as if he were about to swing at Clark. After witnessing Clark take Perry to the ground, she ran over, secured Perry's right hand, and forced her knee into his back to subdue him. Golden proceeded to handcuff Perry. Pennington, who was Wolfe's superior, told the other officers that Perry was not a threat, but when Pennington tried to remove the handcuffs, Clark stopped him and said that he had no authority to do so because "this [was] a county thing now." Perry testified that throughout the episode, he cried out for help and asked officers why he was being arrested but did not threaten the officers' safety or resist arrest. Perry was then charged with a number of crimes including possessing a weapon, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. All charges eventually were dismissed.

         As a result of the incident, Perry suffered lacerated tendons in his knees, a bulged disc in his neck, constant back problems, nerve damage, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He brought this suit against Wolfe and other defendants, stating federal and state law claims. The district court denied summary judgment and allowed the majority of Perry's claims to proceed. Wolfe appealed, claiming that the district court erred in ruling that she was not entitled to qualified immunity.


         Under the collateral order doctrine, we have authority to hear an interlocutory appeal of a denial of qualified immunity. Ehlers v. City of Rapid City, 846 F.3d 1002, 1008 (8th Cir. 2017). We are limited, however, to reviewing questions of law, not factual disputes, and thus, "we review a district court's qualified immunity determination on summary judgment de novo, viewing the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor." Id. (alterations and quotation omitted).

         Qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers from liability for civil damages so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional or statutory rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). An officer loses the shield of qualified immunity if (1) the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional or statutory right; and (2) that right was clearly established at the time of the purported misconduct. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001); Ehlers, 846 F.3d at 1008. A constitutional or statutory right is clearly established when the contours of the right are "sufficiently clear [such] that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). While "general statements of law are not inherently incapable of giving fair and clear warning to officers, " White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (quotation omitted), the Supreme Court has cautioned lower courts against defining clearly established rights "at a high level of generality, " see id. (quotation omitted).

         A. Fourth Amendment Violation

         First, we determine whether Wolfe's conduct violated Perry's Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of excessive force. In determining whether a particular use of force was excessive, we consider whether it was objectively reasonable under the circumstances, "rely[ing] on the perspective of a reasonable officer present at the scene rather than the '20/20 vision of hindsight.'" Carpenter v. Gage, 686 F.3d 644, 649 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)). The proper application of this standard "requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses ...

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