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Peterson v. Prince George's County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

January 19, 2018

CLYDE PETERSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PAUL W. GRIMM, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Clyde Peterson and Derrick Simmons allege that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when Defendant Officer David Gross shot them while they occupied a parked vehicle. They seek redress pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pending is Officer Gross's Motion for Summary Judgment.[1] ECF No. 40. I find that Officer Gross acted reasonably, and therefore, no constitutional violation occurred. Accordingly, I will grant Officer Gross's Motion. And, consequently, I will dismiss the Monell[2] claim against Defendant Prince George's County (the “County”).

         Background

         On June 9, 2015, a supervisor sent Officer Gross and Corporal Fu Cheung (formerly a defendant but now dismissed) to a shopping mall parking lot in unmarked vehicles in search of a black Ford Mustang that had been reported stolen. Gross Dep. 32:6-14, ECF No. 42-1; see also Cheung Dep. 16:11-21, 18:3-17, ECF No. 42-2. Corporal Cheung identified the Mustang and attempted to observe whether anyone was inside. Cheung Dep. 18:20-19:4. He observed one person in the driver's seat upon his initial pass. Id.; Gross Dep. 34:7-10.

         Officer Gross, Corporal Cheung, and Detective Dichoso (all of whom were communicating via radio) decided that the car would be remotely disabled and Officer Gross would use his unmarked vehicle to conduct a tactical maneuver known as a “pinch” to block the driver's side of the vehicle and to force the occupant[3] to exit on the passenger side, where Corporal Cheung would apprehend him. Gross Dep. 38:8-39:19, 51:4-17; Cheung Dep. 22:11-22; Pls.' Opp'n Mem. 2. According to Officer Gross, after a pinch is executed, “most people will either do one of two things in a situation like that; they will comply or they'll run, fight or flight . . . In this particular thing you're going to figure out which one, and that's going to be really fast.” Gross Dep. 51:4-17. After completing the maneuver, Officer Gross exited his vehicle and approached Plaintiffs' vehicle, crossing the front of the Mustang to the passenger side. Id. 53:1-7; see also Pls.' Opp'n Mem. 2.

         As Officer Gross moved around the Mustang, he “g[ot] to a point where [he saw] the driver, after he pushe[d] on the driver's door, lift his butt off the seat and reach down and pull a handgun out and [the officer was] able to look into the car and see the handgun.” Gross Dep. 53:13-54:2, 62:17-19, 64:1-3. Simmons, who was sitting in the driver's seat of the Mustang, acknowledged that he had a weapon in the front right pocket of his pants. Simmons Dep. 2d Excerpt 40:6-20, ECF No. 42-6. Officer Gross issued multiple warnings to “drop the gun, ” and the car began to shake as Plaintiffs moved inside it. Gross Dep. 64:20-65:3, 10-12, 67:1-14; Simmons Dep. 35:24-36:2; Peterson Dep. 19:2-3, ECF No. 42-4. Plaintiffs agree that Officer Gross yelled “gun” as he approached the passenger side of the Mustang. Simmons Dep. 35:24- 36:2, ECF No. 42-3; Peterson Dep. 19:2-3. At his deposition, Officer Gross stated:

And then I remember thinking, like, they're not complying and that I'm in fear for my life. “I'm going to get into a gunfight with these guys.” At that point, I abandoned the door and I started working backwards away from the passenger door . . . I realized that these two armed individuals were going to get out of the passenger side. I had no cover, I had nothing to go to, and I felt lethal force at that point was my only option.

Gross Dep. 68:1-6, 69:7-11. As Officer Gross backed away, he shot into the vehicle, striking Peterson (who was in the backseat) once and Simmons multiple times. Def.'s Mem. 2; Pls.' Opp'n Mem. 2. Corporal Cheung, who had been in another location in the parking lot, arrived after Officer Gross began discharging his weapon. Cheung Dep. 26:4-10. Simmons was dragged from the car, the weapon fell out of his pocket, and he was “laying on it” on the ground. Id. 41:11-42:3. Simmons testified that he learned after the incident that Peterson was armed. Simmons Dep. 31:24-32:8; see also Cheung Dep. 37:17-38:13 (stating the individual in the backseat was found to have a weapon in his pocket).

         On June 8, 2016, Peterson and Simmons filed suit against Officer Gross, the County, and Corporal Cheung. Compl., ECF No. 1. On June 21, 2017, I denied Defendants' motion to dismiss and bifurcated the Monell claim against the County, pending the resolution of the claims against Officer Gross. ECF No. 23. The claims against Corporal Cheung were voluntarily dismissed with prejudice. See Ltr. Order, ECF No. 37. Officer Gross now moves for summary judgment, arguing that there are no genuine disputes of material fact and that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Def.'s Mot.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c)(1)(A); see also Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a “scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Instead, the evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party opposing summary judgment. Id. A “genuine” dispute of material fact is one where the conflicting evidence creates “fair doubt”; wholly speculative assertions do not create “fair doubt.” Cox v. Cty. of Prince William, 249 F.3d 295, 299 (4th Cir. 2001); see also Miskin v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 107 F.Supp.2d 669, 671 (D. Md. 1999). The substantive law governing the case determines what is material. See Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001). A fact that is not of consequence to the case, or is not relevant in light of the governing law, is not material. Id.; see also Fed. R. Evid. 401 (defining relevance).

         Discussion

         § 1983 Claim (Count I) - Qualified Immunity and Excessive Force

         Qualified immunity “protects law enforcement agents from federal claims when they act in objectively reasonable reliance on existing law.” Queen v. Prince George's Cty., 188 F.Supp.3d 535, 541 (D. Md. 2016) (quoting Rockwell v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, No. RDB-13-3049, 2014 WL 949859, at *8 n.10 (D. Md. Mar. 11, 2014)). It “balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). “In particular, . . . qualified immunity protects law officers from ‘bad guesses in gray areas' and it ensures that they may ...


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