With the future of qualified immunity around the nation up in the air, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision on July 9, 2020 addressing the limits of qualified immunity in a §1983 Civil Rights Act lawsuit, alleging excessive force stemming from a police-involved shooting. In the matter of Baskin v. Martinez, the plaintiff, Bryheim Jamar Baskin, filed suit against Detective Rafael Martinez, claiming that Detective Martinez’s actions constituted excessive force in violation of his federal constitutional rights after a police chase ended in Detective Martinez shooting Mr. Baskin in Camden, New Jersey on September 11, 2012. After a period of discovery, the trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claims on a motion for summary judgment, finding that qualified immunity applied to the police officer and defeated the federal civil rights claims. In a split decision, the Appellate Division reversed, finding that questions of fact precluded summary judgment on this basis.
Many of the facts in the record before the court were undisputed. On September 11, 2012 officers observed Mr. Baskin commit a traffic violation and maneuvered in front of and behind him for purposes of making a motor vehicle stop. Plaintiff suddenly put his car in reverse and collided into Detective Martinez’s vehicle, before fleeing the scene on foot. While in pursuit, Detective Martinez observed that Mr. Baskin had a handgun in the waistband of his shorts, which, at one point during the pursuit, he dropped and picked back up. Mr. Baskin then ran into the walled-in backyard of a residence and, while out of Detective Martinez’s sight, tossed his handgun away from him before ending his flight. What happened next was the subject of dispute between Mr. Baskin, an eyewitness, and Detective Martinez. Mr. Baskin claimed that he put his empty hands over his head and remained in position until Detective Martinez rounded the corner and shot him in the abdomen, an account which was largely corroborated by an eyewitness. Detective Martinez claimed that as he rounded the corner before shooting he observed Mr. Baskin begin to turn towards him with his arm extended and a black object in his hand, which he believed was a gun.
In addition to other state law claims, Plaintiff asserted a claim for violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 does not provide individual civil rights but provides an individual with a cause of action for deprivation of rights provided elsewhere. In the case of excessive force, the substantive rights at issue are guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees individual rights to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The use of excessive force in the course of an arrest constitutes an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989). Accordingly, the ultimate issue in determining whether the use of force was excessive and, therefore, violated an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights is whether, “from the police officer’s perspective, the use of force was objectively reasonable under all the circumstances.” Id. at 396-397. An officer may only use deadly force when the officer reasonably believes that a suspect poses a threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or others.
The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability for “discretionary acts” that do not violate clearly established rights. SeeHarlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity is a question of law for the court. In determining whether qualified immunity applies courts consider 1) whether the officer violated a constitutional or statutory right; and 2) whether that right was clearly established. SeeSaucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001).
As noted above, the Supreme Court held that questions of fact remained that precluded finding on summary judgment that Detective Martinez was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court noted that “[o]ur constitutional jurisprudence makes clear that every police officer understands — it is not objectively reasonable to shoot a person suspected of committing a crime after he has placed his empty hands above his head in an act of surrender.” The Court further reasoned that a suspect’s conduct leading up to his surrender cannot alone justify the use of deadly force against him when the suspect no longer poses a threat. In other words, “an exercise of force that is reasonable at one moment can become unreasonable in the next if the justification for the use of force has ceased.” QuotingLytle v. Bexar County, 560 F.3d 404, 413 (5th Cir. 2009). Accepting all facts presented by Plaintiff as true, as the Court must do at the summary judgment stage, the Supreme Court found that an objectively reasonable officer would not have been justified in using deadly force and, therefore, that Detective Martinez was not entitled to qualified immunity.
Notably, in a sharp dissent, Justice Solomon wrote that the totality of the circumstances established that a reasonable officer at the scene would have no reason to know, in the split second that Detective Martinez fired his weapon, that Mr. Baskin no longer possessed a gun. Accordingly, the dissent believed that the record established that Detective Martinez acted reasonably under the circumstances and was entitled to qualified immunity.