Morrow v. Meachum, 2019 (5th Cir. 2019)
Austin Moon was riding his motorcycle on the interstate, speeding at triple-digit speeds, and weaving in and out of traffic. An officer in a marked police vehicle activated emergency lights to stop Moon, but Moon hit the throttle and sped out of the officer’s sight. The officer broadcast his attempted stop and notified area officers Moon had fled on his motorcycle.
Moon left the interstate and stopped for gas further up the road where he was spotted by another officer. Moon crouched down behind a gas pump, but then jumped back on the bike and sped away, front wheel raised in the air. By this time, the first officer had passed Moon on the two-lane road ahead of him.
Moon drove at a high rate of speed, likely unaware the first officer was driving ahead of him. The officer’s dash camera showed there was oncoming traffic in the opposite lane. The officer saw Moon in his rear-view mirror, closing fast. As the officer crested a hill on the highway, he moved into the oncoming traffic lane and slowed his vehicle to warn oncoming traffic of the police pursuit and to block Moon from passing and driving into the oncoming traffic.
Moon shifted into the oncoming lane and sped toward the officer at around 150 miles per hour (a crash investigator later opined his speed was closer to 170 miles per hour). He crashed into the patrol vehicle and died.
An officer is not entitled to qualified immunity—meaning the lawsuit against him can move forward—if two factors are met: First, did the officer violate a constitutional right? Second, was the right clearly established at the time of the alleged violation?
Moon’s survivors sued, alleging the officer’s rolling block maneuver was an intentional move to kill Moon. The trial court granted qualified immunity to the officer and the plaintiff appealed. Here’s a quick review of the qualified immunity doctrine: An officer is not entitled to qualified immunity—meaning the lawsuit against him can move forward—if two factors are met: First, did the officer violate a constitutional right? Second, was the right clearly established at the time of the alleged violation?
The Supreme Court has said, over and over again, not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality: “The dispositive question is whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established,” as decided per curiam in Mullenix v. Luna (136 S.Ct. 305 (2015)). In Moon’s case, the court of appeals held, “[t]hat means the law must be so clearly established that—in the blink of an eye, in the middle of a high-speed chase—every reasonable officer would know it immediately.”
Moreover, recognizing the repetitive series of cases where the Supreme Court has summarily reversed denials of qualified immunity for police officers (primarily in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals), the court stated, “we must think twice before denying qualified immunity.” Before joining the Supreme Court, Justice Kavanaugh observed, “Indeed, in just the past five years, the Supreme Court has issued 11 decisions reversing federal courts of appeals in qualified immunity cases, including five strongly worded summary reversals” (Wesby v. District of Columbia, 816 F.3d 96 (D.C. Cir. 2016), rev’d, 138 S.Ct. 577 (U.S. 2018)).
Applying the qualified immunity standard and recognizing the Supreme Court has consistently approved of granting qualified immunity for using deadly force to end high-speed chases (see also Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305 (2015) (per curiam); Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. 765 (2014); Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007)), the court held in favor of the officer. The court defined Moon’s conduct as a high-speed, reckless flight that endangered other motorists. Accordingly, the officer’s actions were reasonable, thus he was entitled to dismissal of the lawsuit. Note: If you’re a student of the Fourth Amendment seizure doctrine as it relates to qualified immunity, this decision is an excellent primer on just how the Supreme Court views qualified immunity for police officers and it is worth the time for a detailed reading.