Alleged Policy Violations ≠ Constitutional Violations

Christiansen v. Eral, 2022 WL 16546084 (8th Cir. 2022)

An officer in North Sioux City, South Dakota, saw Dean Christiansen drive his truck from a casino parking lot in the middle of the night. The officer tried to stop Christiansen for mechanical issues, but Christiansen fled with the officer in pursuit. Christiansen increased his speed to about 80 m.p.h. About two minutes into the chase, Christiansen drove across the state line into Sioux City, Iowa. The South Dakota officer in pursuit told Sioux City police he suspected Christiansen of driving while intoxicated.

Sioux City police attempted to halt Christiansen’s flight with “stop sticks,” but a different vehicle hit the sticks and Christiansen swerved to avoid both the other vehicle and the sticks. The pursuing officer hit the stop sticks as well, disabling his vehicle. Christiansen was driving between 80 and 90 m.p.h. Officer Eral began pursuing Christiansen, announcing his intention to end the chase with the Pursuit Intervention Technique (“PIT”) maneuver. Eral struck Christiansen’s truck, causing it to spin into a ditch and collide with a light pole. Christiansen sued, claiming injuries to his chest, knee and hip.

The trial court concluded Officer Eral had acted reasonably in using the PIT maneuver to end the chase—he had not used excessive force. The court also ruled Christiansen had not properly alleged that Officer Eral violated his substantive due process rights because the complaint failed to show the officer had acted “maliciously and sadistically to harm Christiansen.” In County of Sacramento v. Lewis (523 U.S. 833 (1998)), the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff alleging a substantive due process claim based on a high-speed chase must show the pursuing officer had “only a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest satisfy the element of arbitrary conduct shocking to the conscience, necessary for a due process violation.”

“Even if we accept Christiansen’s conclusory allegation that Eral knew the relevant policies, his knowing violation of department policy doesn’t transform his actions into unconstitutional behavior.”

Christiansen claimed Officer Eral knew his pursuit of Christiansen and his use of force (in the form of the PIT maneuver) violated his department policy. The appellate court responded: “We’ve repeatedly explained that police department guidelines and policies do not create rights that give rise to a § 1983 action.” Christiansen tried to circumvent this legal rule, arguing that, though “a policy violation does not equate to a constitutional violation, Officer Eral’s knowledge of the policy shows his use of force in these circumstances was objectively unreasonable and an intent to harm” Christiansen. “Not so,” replied the court of appeals. “Even if we accept Christiansen’s conclusory allegation that Eral knew the relevant policies, his knowing violation of department policy doesn’t transform his actions into unconstitutional behaviorThe constitution doesn’t rise and fall with the whims of each police department’s policies, which are free to go above and beyond what the constitution or federal law requires.”

The appellate court also noted the Supreme Court decision in Scott v. Harris (550 U.S. 372 (2007)) explained that an “officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.” The court of appeals held that Christiansen’s actions were “a similar situation” and that Christiansen had already threatened the safety of others during the chase.

The appellate court concluded, “We think that the complaint demonstrates only that Eral made a split-second decision in a high-pressure circumstance to end a chase in a manner that the Supreme Court has already blessed.”

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 four 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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