Deadly Force Against Occupants of a Vehicle Moving Slowly Towards Officers is Unconstitutional

By editor on March 05, 2021

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a published decision in Villanueva v. State of California, recently reiterated that an officer firing at a slow-moving vehicle violates the Fourth Amendment if the officer could have moved and avoided being struck.

In July 2016, plainclothes officers followed a truck occupied by Villanueva (driver) and Orozco (passenger) because the vehicle performed maneuvers consistent with illegal “sideshows.” The officers activated lights and sirens, but Villanueva did not stop. He instead ran three red lights and drove between 50 and 70 miles per hour. He finally stopped at a dead end; the officers exited their patrol car and drew their firearms. With the front of the truck facing the officers, both fired their weapons at the vehicle as it slowly rolled forward at a “very low speed.” Villanueva was killed; Orozco injured.

Plaintiffs, Villanueva’s parents and Orozco, filed suit alleging various claims, including Fourth Amendment excessive force. The officers’ summary judgment motion argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force allegation. The district court denied summary judgment on qualified immunity and the officers appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first determined that Orozco (the passenger) had a cognizable Fourth Amendment interest because he was “unquestionably seized.” The panel then turned to whether this was excessive force under clearly established law (i.e., were the officers entitled to qualified immunity). The officers argued that their use of deadly force was not unconstitutional because Villanueva threatened them with a deadly weapon (the truck). The Court disagreed.

Neither occupant was suspected of possessing, much less using, a firearm. When the officers fired their weapons, it was undisputed that “the truck was moving forward at a speed of up to five miles per hour.” Prior case law established that deadly force to stop a slow-moving vehicle was unreasonable when officers could have easily moved out of the vehicle’s path to avoid danger (citing Orn v. City of Tacoma, 949 F.3d 1167, 1174 (9th Cir. 2020); Acosta v. City & Cnty. of S.F., 83 F.3d 1143, 1146 (9th Cir. 1996); Monzon v. City of Murrieta, 978 F.3d 1150, 1161 (9th Cir. 2020); and Wilkinson v. Torres, 610 F.3d 546, 551-53 (9th Cir. 2010).)

The quintessential question was whether Villanueva accelerated (or attempted to accelerate) towards the officers before shots were fired. This was a disputed fact. The officers claimed Villanueva drove “recklessly” and that he accelerated prior to any shots being fired. Orozco and other witnesses claimed Villanueva’s attempt to further evade was “controlled” and that he never accelerated toward the officers or their vehicle. Forced by summary judgment rules to believe the facts alleged by the non-moving party (plaintiff), the Ninth Circuit concluded that Villanueva did not accelerate, or attempt to accelerate, towards the officers. The panel affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

This case underscores that excessive force cases are highly fact-specific and disputed facts create major hurdles for summary judgment. Unless a vehicle is actively accelerating towards the officer(s), or the officer reasonably believes the suspect has a firearm, deadly force is unconstitutional. To avoid disputed facts, officers are encouraged to wear and immediately activate their body cameras when any pursuit is initiated.

A copy of the opinion can be found here.

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