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The Eleventh Circuit Upholds Qualified Immunity for Officers Using Physical Force on a Non-Compliant Prisoner

January 11, 2019

            Following his arrest for a DUI, Steven Kraus brought claims of excessive-force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Deputy Michael Gargan, Sergeant David Sansone, and Sheriff William Snyder, and state-law battery claims. Kraus v. Martin Cty. Sheriff's Office, 2018 WL 4201201 (11th Cir. 2018). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of each defendant as to all claims. 

 

            According to Kraus, he had “been drinking and driving [his] whole life,” and it wasn’t until 2012 that he was finally caught and arrested for DUI. While being transported to jail, Kraus repeatedly asked the deputy to shoot him and to use the excuse that Kraus tried to run away. Once at the jail, the deputy reported Kraus’s statements to Deputy Gargan and Sergeant Sansone. During the booking process, Kraus threw his belt and necklace on the counter because he claimed that the officers had made derogatory comments about his sexuality. Kraus then claims that Deputy Gargan “grabbed [him] by [his left] arm and the back of [his] neck, slammed [his] head down on the counter, placed ... both his legs behind [Kraus’s] legs, and held [him] there in a controlled position.” According to Kraus, even though he was completely subdued by Deputy Gargan’s maneuver, Sergeant Sansone “took [his] right arm off the table, twisted it behind his back and ... lifted it straight over [Kraus’s] head in an unnatural manner before slamming [his arm] back down towards the table.” Kraus stated that he “heard a snap immediately and knew that his arm had been broken.”

 

            Unfortunately for Kraus, a video recording of the booking process did not support his allegations. The footage showed Kraus continually take his hands off of the counter and face Deputy Gargan.  After multiple acts of non-compliance, Deputy Gargan grabbed Kraus’s left arm and maneuvered his upper body toward the booking counter, while Sergeant Sansone secured Kraus’s right arm behind his back in an “arm bar.” After he was subdued, Kraus was given a breathalyzer test that showed his blood alcohol level was .151-.156.  He was then transported to Stuart Memorial Hospital where it was determined that a bone in his right arm had been broken.

 

            Kraus argued that the law at the time of the incident clearly established “that an officer may not apply physical force strong enough to cause serious injury when there is no legitimate safety threat and the citizen is compliant.” However, Kraus only cited cases which involved an appellant who was fully secured and not resisting in any way. The Court held that Kraus was clearly non-compliant at the time of the officers’ use of force, it was not clearly established that the officers’ actions were unconstitutional at the time of the incident. Accordingly, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

 

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