Pointing Gun at Teen Driver’s Head Not Justified

by | August 29, 2019

Vanderhoef v. Dixon, 2019 (6th Cir. 2019)

A teenage driver, Logan Vanderhoef, bought a Ford Mustang. Only 17 days later, accompanied by two friends, Vanderhoef accelerated into a curve, swayed from his lane, struck a pole and swiped Maurice Dixon’s fender before running off the road into a ditch. Airbags deployed and the three young occupants tried to get out of the Mustang.

Dixon, a security guard who worked part-time as a reserve police officer, ran from his car, pistol in hand. He shouted at Vanderhoef and friends to get out of the car and get on the ground. As he did so, he pointed his gun at Vanderhoef’s head. Another driver, Martha Keller, saw everything. She got out of her car and told Dixon to calm down and to “put that gun away.” Dixon told her to “shut up, mind your own business, and get back in your car.” Keller called the police.

he court held Dixon “was unreasonable in pointing his gun at plaintiff’s head and holding him at gunpoint for approximately two minutes.”

At a jury trial, the jury awarded Vanderhoef $1,500 in damages for excessive force under federal civil rights statutes and for state law claims of assault and false imprisonment. The trial court applied qualified immunity and vacated the award of damages. The court of appeals reversed.

Applying the Graham v. Connor factors, (the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the police officers or others, and whether the suspect actively resisted arrest or attempted to evade arrest by flight), the court held Dixon “was unreasonable in pointing his gun at plaintiff’s head and holding him at gunpoint for approximately two minutes.” Dixon “saw three unarmed and nonthreatening teens exit the damaged vehicle. He ordered them all to the ground at gunpoint without any of the three teens actively—or even passively—resisting his authority and commands.”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. Subscribe here!

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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