“All Hell Breaking Loose” Not Connected to Failure to Train

Huff v. Reeves, 2021 WL 1849110 (10th Cir. 2021)

One winter morning, Julie Huff went to her bank to access her safe-deposit box. Then, “all hell broke loose. Cedric Norris entered the bank, murdered the bank president, grabbed some money from tellers, and took Ms. Huff hostage, forcing her to drive the getaway vehicle.” Officers pursued Huff and Norris. A trooper made a pursuit intervention technique and struck the rear of the car, forcing it to spin out and crash. At some point, someone broadcast that the car contained “two female suspects, one white and one black,” though the initial report was that there was “a black suspect, dressed as a female, [and] a white female hostage.”

Norris bailed out of the car and opened fire at the trooper and a deputy. Huff jumped out of the driver side, raised her arms and fled in the opposite direction and toward a police car. As she ran, she was shot twice. She fell to the ground and called out, “Stop shooting me; stop shooting me.” The officers continued to shoot her at least eight more times as she lay on the ground. Norris came to Huff and used her as a shooting rest and human shield as she lay on the ground. When the trooper saw Norris’s face drop to the ground, he stopped firing and called for medical assistance.

Huff was shot a total of 10 times. Though it was unclear who fired each round, at least three rounds were attributed to the state trooper. “Unsurprisingly, Ms. Huff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her civil rights. Among other things, she alleged that Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Chris Reeves used excessive force against her, in violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendments. She also sued McIntosh County Sheriff Kevin Ledbetter for failure to properly train his deputies.”

The trial court granted summary judgment to the sheriff and the trooper. The court ruled that the trooper didn’t violate Huff’s constitutional rights because she did not show he intended to shoot her. The judge also ruled Huff failed to identify any specific training deficiency in the sheriff’s office related to her shooting. The court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the substantive-due-process 14th Amendment claim against the trooper and the failure-to-train claim against the sheriff.

The court cited Supreme Court precedent for the proposition that all excessive force claims against police officers should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment – not as a substantive-due-process claim. However, the court reversed the trial court decision on the Fourth Amendment claim against the trooper. The appellate court held that Huff showed a genuine issue of material fact on whether the trooper shot her intentionally: “And because it is clearly established in this circuit that an officer may not employ deadly force against a person who poses no threat, Reeves is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage of the proceedings.”

There is almost always something more that can be added to training, but the law allows for agencies’ very real budget, practical and time limitations and requires much more than a general statement that something more could have been done.

Though many federal civil rights lawsuits include a failure-to-train claim, plaintiffs infrequently win on these claims. Huff’s failure-to-train claim could only apply to the single sheriff’s deputy involved in the pursuit and shooting. She claimed the sheriff failed to provide adequate training on “the handling of hostage situations,” specifically failing to train deputies on dealing with hostages used as human shields. She also alleged the sheriff chose “to give priority to the apprehension or liquidation of a criminal offender over the right to be free of excessive force and to be secure in their bodily integrity.” In other words, Huff claimed the sheriff trained his staff to apprehend or “liquidate” (an interesting choice of words by Huff’s attorneys) Norris at the expense of shooting innocent Huff.

To successfully sue an agency for inadequate training, a plaintiff must establish four factors. The plaintiff must offer evidence that: “(1) the officers exceeded constitutional limitations on the use of force; (2) the use of force arose under circumstances that constitute a usual and recurring situation with which police officers must deal; (3) the inadequate training demonstrates a deliberate indifference on the part of the city towards persons with whom the police officers come into contact; and (4) there is a direct causal link between the constitutional deprivation and the inadequate training.”

The court held that there was “no explanation…forthcoming in [Huff’s] briefs on appeal, or even in the report of her use-of-force expert, Scott DeFoe,” to point to any link between inadequate training and Huff’s injuries. Merely claiming that the sheriff could have offered better training is not enough. There is almost always something more that can be added to training, but the law allows for agencies’ very real budget, practical and time limitations and requires much more than a general statement that something more could have been done. The “plaintiff must identify a specific deficiency in the entity’s training program closely related to his ultimate injury.”

The court reversed summary judgment for the trooper on the excessive force claim. Though the trooper claimed he did not see Huff in his gun sights, the court concluded that the record contained sufficient evidence to support a jury finding the trooper intentionally shot Huff: “To begin with, the very fact that Ms. Huff was repeatedly struck by bullets from Reeves’s gun strongly implies that she was in his line of sight. The shooting was in broad daylight. And the fact that she was struck by bullets so often (at least 10 times) makes it hard to believe that she was not being aimed at.” Moreover, Huff and Norris ran from different sides of the car and in opposite directions.

Even if the trooper intentionally shot Huff, that doesn’t end the question of liability. At trial, the trooper may claim he perceived that Huff was an accomplice to the suspect who was shooting at him. The court held that was a question for a jury. “On facts that could reasonably be found by the jury, Reeves’s shooting at Ms. Huff was contrary to clearly established Fourth Amendment law.” If the jury so concludes, the trooper is liable for excessive force.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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