Shelton v. Stevens, 2020 WL 3864225 (8th Cir. 2020)
Juan Shelton brutally beat a man in a strip club. On the following day, officers obtained an arrest warrant for him. When officers spotted Shelton getting into a car, they approached him and ordered him to get out. Shelton refused and an officer tried to pull him from the car. The officer then punched Shelton in the face and delivered a knee strike to his head. After noticing Shelton had a gun and loaded magazine on the seat, the officers drew their weapons and backed up.
Shelton sped away, leading the officers on a chase. The pursuing officers broadcast several times that Shelton was armed with a gun. Shelton crashed in a wooded area and disappeared into the forest. Officers spotted him emerging from the other side of the woods, walking down a city street. Shelton continued to walk with hands in the air but refused to stop and get on the ground.
Two officers tackled Shelton and one officer felt something hard in Shelton’s front pocket. Shelton “turtled,” holding his hands beneath him. One officer punched Shelton and applied a neck restraint, gaining control of one arm. Another officer struck Shelton in the head with his portable radio. Then Officer Brian Stevens stomped on Shelton’s ankle and the officers were able to control the other arm and handcuff Shelton. Shelton’s broken ankle required surgery and pins.
Shelton sued. The trial court ruled all the officers except Stevens were entitled to qualified immunity. Shelton had fled after a vicious assault. The officers knew he was armed with a gun during the flight. They could have mistaken the cell phone in his pocket for a gun and the way in which he was moving as reaching for a weapon in his pocket. The trial judge noted several officers were already struggling with Shelton when Stevens approached and there was “unclear any legitimate restraint purpose” of Stevens’s stomp on Shelton’s ankle. The court concluded the other officers had Shelton under control by the time of Steven’s arrival.
The court of appeals agreed Steven’s ankle stomp was unreasonable, observing there were other, lesser means to control Shelton. Even though “the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment does not require an officer to pursue the least aggressive or most prudent course of conduct,” the availability of lesser means is a factor to consider in assessing the reasonableness of a particular application of force.
Qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Shelton still had to show that a reasonable officer should have known the law prohibiting the particular force was clearly established at the time of the application of force: “Even where an officer’s action is deemed unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, he is entitled to qualified immunity if a reasonable officer could have believed, mistakenly, that the use of force was permissible—if he was ‘reasonably unreasonable.’”
Shelton failed to show Stevens was aware his use of force was prohibited, therefore Stevens was entitled to qualified immunity. The appellate court held the ankle stomp fell within the zone described as the “sometimes hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.” The court recognized the danger posed by Shelton as he “turtled up,” particularly because the officers did not know whether he still had a gun: “Some use of force was reasonable, and constitutional distinctions among a chokehold, a radio-bang to the head, and an unreasonable ankle-stomp—all objectively designed to prompt Shelton to surrender his hands—are hazy enough to warrant qualified immunity for Stevens.”
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