Appeals Court Denies Immunity To Cop Who Broke A Truck Driver's Jaw During A 'Routine Accident Investigation'

from the maybe-it-would-have-been-better-to-leave-the-dashcam-ON? dept

There is perhaps no sentence that defines the state of policing in America more than this one, which opens up this opinion [PDF] by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals:

Moses Stryker was tased, beaten, and left with a broken jaw after a routine accident investigation by City of Homewood police officers spiraled out of control.

Beaten, tased, left with a broken jaw… all after a "routine traffic investigation." In America, we escalate. What could be "routine" far too often turns into a civil rights lawsuit. Or someone's death. Why? For a few reasons. First, training of cops often revolves around the idea that everyone they face is a potential threat, even when the person is just calling for help.

Second, qualified immunity protects all but the most criminal of cops. The Supreme Court's reductio ad absurdum says courts only need to look at established precedent, rather than the facts at hand. Even seemingly clear-cut cases of excessive force/rights violations can be excused if no cop has violated rights exactly this way in the past. Cutting out this step -- the one that determines whether a rights violation has actually occurred -- leads to less precedent declaring these actions to be a clear violation of rights. The void that should be filled with precedent is instead filled with exonerative court decisions claiming this all looks bad but isn't a definite rights violation, no matter how much it appears to be one.

That's how we end up here: routine accident investigations morphing into excessive force deployments. And cop shops won't police their own because snitches get stitches and it's easier to keep bad cops around then follow through with discipline.

Here's all we need to know about this interaction, in which multiple narratives are still under dispute. Nearly indisputable evidence is almost always just a recording away, but cops seem to prefer operating under the cover of darkness. Cameras are everywhere… everywhere but where a cop wants to handle something unobserved.

Early one morning, Moses Stryker, a commercial truck driver, was training another man to drive on a highway near Birmingham, Alabama. Shortly before 2:00 A.M., the pair arrived at their delivery destination—a Walmart store in Homewood, Alabama. While Stryker (who at this point was driving) attempted to maneuver the truck in the parking lot to reach the loading dock, a woman parked her car in front of the truck in an apparent attempt to block it from moving. The woman accused the men of hitting her car on the highway and said that she had already summoned the police.

Officer Jason Davis, a City of Homewood police officer, was the first to arrive on scene. Although his vehicle was equipped with a dash camera, he turned it off when he arrived.

That's how you know you're going to get the best protecting/serving: when a cop turns off his camera before interacting with you. There are zero reasons to turn off a camera. Video redaction isn't some sorcery years away from practical use. If a cop turns off a camera, it's because they want to engage in behavior citizens (and possibly courts) might find abusive.

That's what happened here. And while the facts are still in dispute, one fact that cannot be disputed is that Officer Davis had a chance to record this whole interaction and provide evidence that backed his narrative but affirmatively chose not to.

The truck driver asked the officer if he could park in a lighted area of the parking lot rather than the dark area Officer Davis directed him to. This was the response he got from the officer:

According to Stryker, Officer Davis became angry and threatened to “lock [his] ass up” if he did not “shut up.”

More fine police service/protection here. Things got worse for Stryker from there, according to the truck driver's testimony. Officer Davis called more law enforcement officers in because he felt the accident might have occurred outside of his jurisdiction. Stryker, however, had some concerns of his own. His company required documentation of any accidents. So, he took his phone out and began taking pictures of the woman's car and his truck.

Unbeknownst to Stryker, Officer Davis had already decided there should be no record of this encounter by shutting off his cruiser's dash cam. Stryker's attempt to document the accident scene apparently enraged the officer, who was trying to handle this off the (recorded) books.

As Stryker began moving back to his truck, Davis shoved him and asked what he was holding. Stryker said it was his camera, and Davis instructed him to put it away. When Stryker attempted to comply by putting the camera in his pocket, Davis drew his pistol and pointed it at him. Stryker explained to the officer that he was just putting his camera away, and Davis holstered his weapon.

This wasn't the end of Officer Davis' attempts to "control" the scene. Seeing a camera where the officer expected no cameras to be led to additional abuse.

Stryker turned to return to his truck. Without warning, and without telling Stryker that he was under arrest, Officer Davis shot him in the back with a taser and kicked him when he fell to the ground. After the unexpected tasing, Stryker was afraid and tried to get away. He crawled to his truck and attempted to climb the stairs to the cab, but Davis caught up and struck him multiple times in the face—breaking his jaw and causing him to bleed. Stryker was able to get himself into the cab and locked the door, but Davis tased him again through the open window. Stryker managed to close the window and put his hands on the dash to show that he was not a threat and was not trying to escape, but Davis broke out the window with his baton. Davis then went over to the passenger side of the cab and resumed his attempts to pull Stryker out of the truck. At some point in the melee, Stryker was pepper sprayed.

Routine. Traffic. Stop.

Officer Davis told a different story -- one backed by nothing more than his deliberate failure to record the encounter. In his version, Stryker was the unpredictable aggressor who needed to be handled with the deployment of force. The additional officers called to the scene told a different story as well, although they admitted to "striking" the truck driver on his "head and neck several times," supposedly to "gain compliance."

This all could have been settled already if Officer Davis had left his camera on. But he didn't. And when there are competing narratives, the court should err on the side of the complainant until all the facts are in. The lower court did not do this. So, there's no qualified immunity for the officers. At least, not yet.

Very little is clear about exactly what happened in the early morning hours after Stryker arrived at Walmart. The officers articulate a version of events that justifies their use of force. Stryker tells a story that presents a clear constitutional violation. Resolving that dispute is for a trial, not summary judgment.

A footnote points out this could have been more easily resolved but Officer Davis prevented that from happening.

As an additional point, this Court in Draper was able to review the video footage from the arresting officer’s dash camera. 369 F.3d at 1273. Because Officer Davis turned off his camera while conducting this investigation, however, we do not have this option and are left to contemplate competing versions of the truth.

The concurring opinion adds this to the mix: something that separates "reasonable" officers and "unreasonable" officers. Officer Davis appears to be one of the latter:

This appeal turns on one page of the transcript of Stryker’s deposition. In the context of Stryker’s attempt to convince Officer Davis to permit photographs, an attorney asked Stryker, “[W]ould it surprise you if Officer Davis thought you were arguing with him at that moment?” Stryker answered, “Yes.” After a clarifying question, the attorney tried again: “[I]f you were in [Officer Davis’s] shoes and you were hearing the explanation that you were giving him after he told you no pictures, could you see why he might think you’re arguing with him?” Stryker answered, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

At the summary judgment stage, we must draw all reasonable inferences in Stryker’s favor. Even though his answer to the second question came perilously close to a concession that a reasonable officer could view the interaction as an argument, we must read the second answer in concert with the first. And reading the two answers together, it is reasonable to infer that Stryker meant only that it would be unsurprising if Officer Davis interpreted the interaction as an argument, not that reasonable officers generally could hold that view.

Occam's Razor suggests Officer Davis -- for whatever reason -- did not want this interaction recorded. The sudden introduction of recording equipment provoked this unreasonable response. And if Davis ends up on the losing end of a jury trial, he has only himself to blame. This could have been recorded. Davis' decision to terminate his own recording means he gets no qualified immunity. That's the way it should be. "Routine accident investigations" shouldn't escalate into situations where someone gets hospitalized.

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Filed Under: 11th circuit, body camera, homewood, jason davis, moses stryker, police, police brutality, qualified immunity


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2020 @ 4:52am

    "Argument"

    I didn't realize that arguing was now considered grounds to beat the shit out of somebody.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ThatOtherOtherGuy, 6 Nov 2020 @ 6:13am

    Something seems fishy?

    The cop turned off his camera when he pulled up. That seems suspicious because it hints that he may have already been aware of who he would be interacting with and already knew that he was going to violate the Rights of the subject(s)?

    I wonder if the officer and the subject have hard other interactions, officially, or unofficially.

    Did this guy bang his wife or something?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 6:21am

      Re: Something seems fishy?

      "That seems suspicious because it hints that he may have already been aware of who he would be interacting with and already knew that he was going to violate the Rights of the subject(s)?"

      It seems suspicious that he should have had the ability to do such a thing either way. His personal incentive to use that option is almost secondary.

      "I wonder if the officer and the subject have hard other interactions, officially, or unofficially."

      Almost guaranteed that he has in both capacities. Many investigations into these kinds of cops reveal that they've been doing similar things for years, and it's the sort of career that a violent bully in his normal life would be attracted to ask to be paid t do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      danderbandit (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 9:55am

      Re: Something seems fishy?

      "a woman parked her car in front of the truck in an apparent attempt to block it from moving. The woman accused the men of hitting her car on the highway and said that she had already summoned the police"

      When I read that the first thing I thought of was that the woman and the cop were in a insurance scam together. The idea of a woman by herself going up against a truck driver at 2am behind a store does not ring true to me. I think this was a set up and that is why the cop didn't want any pictures.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2020 @ 12:00pm

        Re: Re: Something seems fishy?

        That's where my mind went to as soon as the cop turned off the camera. The cop knew what the gig was. And it is definitely easier to run an insurance scam if there is no photo or video evidence -- why he got violent about the driver taking pictures.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Carlie Coats, 6 Nov 2020 @ 6:42am

    Turning off the camera should be considered as spoliation of evidence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoliation_of_evidence: Spoliation of evidence is the intentional, reckless, or negligent withholding, hiding, altering, fabricating, or destroying of evidence relevant to a legal proceeding... a negative evidentiary inference that a finder of fact can draw from a party's destruction of a document or thing that is relevant to an ongoing or reasonably foreseeable civil or criminal proceeding: the finder of fact can review all evidence uncovered in as strong a light as possible against the spoliator and in favor of the opposing party. )

    After which, Stryker's case should be allowed to succeed on summary judgement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      MathFox, 6 Nov 2020 @ 7:53am

      Re: spoilation

      I agree with you when you argue that switching off the cam shows "a certain intent" of the cop. But because the incident has not been recorded, there are no recordings to delete and no spoliation of evidence took place. (There is a kind of cop that's very sly in its knowledge and ignorance of the law.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 8:40am

        Either way, the defendant should get the benefit of the doubt when the cops aren’t willing to let the tape tell the truth (or tape things to begin with).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 8 Nov 2020 @ 5:38pm

        Re: Re: spoilation

        Not quite spoliation, but evidence tampering did take place when the cop disabled a recording device so that it could not record evidence he reasonably knew would be of interest to investigators.

        Since the cop's "no photographs" order violated federal law, that brings federal jurisdiction into the matter, and the penalty for a conviction for federal evidence tampering is 20 years in prison - the bar for a conviction is set rather low as well, much lower than it is for evidence tampering at the state level in most states.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          bhull242 (profile), 9 Nov 2020 @ 1:17pm

          Re: Re: Re: spoilation

          I’m not sure it’s evidence tampering either if wrongdoing had not yet taken place before the camera was turned off. Actually, I’m not sure if there is a difference between spoliation of evidence and tampering with evidence.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      bhull242 (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 8:40am

      Re:

      It’s not spoliation of evidence if it happens before any alleged wrongdoing. Is it sketchy as hell? Absolutely. Should it be illegal for a cop to do this? Probably. Should it be counted as evidence against the credibility of the officer in question in this civil suit? Sure. But it’s not spoliation of evidence.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Kitsune106, 6 Nov 2020 @ 8:50am

        Re: Re:

        Obstruction of justice and interference with surveillance. Would be the two charges I bet would be done to a civilian who tried it. And a pre planned addition as if they did not intend something sketchy it would be on.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 7:23am

    Any court that doesn’t defer to the defendant in a situation like this is a court that isn’t interested in justice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:01am

      Re:

      The defendant is the cop. The cop who actively prevented a record of the events from taking place. Do you believe the court should defer to the cop and provide qualified immunity from this civil suit rather than let the suit continue?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:17am

        Whoops, I meant the man who was beaten by the cop. Should’ve been clearer about that; I was thinking criminal case rather than civil, I suppose. (Besides, I’d never sit on the side of a cop unless there was a really, really, really damned good reason for doing so.)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          James Burkhardt (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:20am

          Re:

          Ah. Yes that makes more sense given your other posts. There was a reason for my incredulity.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          TFG, 6 Nov 2020 @ 12:08pm

          Re:

          A really, really, really damned good reason... like that article where a wiretapped officer is getting access to the wiretap documents. That's a damn good reason. I found that interplay intriguing. Ironic is the word that comes to mind but I feel it's wrong.

          In this case, I think there needs to be a widespread policy that if an officer of the law turns off their recording device deliberately, they get fired.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bhull242 (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 8:45am

    This appeal turns on one page of the transcript of Stryker’s deposition. In the context of Stryker’s attempt to convince Officer Davis to permit photographs, an attorney asked Stryker, “[W]ould it surprise you if Officer Davis thought you were arguing with him at that moment?” Stryker answered, “Yes.” After a clarifying question, the attorney tried again: “[I]f you were in [Officer Davis’s] shoes and you were hearing the explanation that you were giving him after he told you no pictures, could you see why he might think you’re arguing with him?” Stryker answered, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

    At the summary judgment stage, we must draw all reasonable inferences in Stryker’s favor. Even though his answer to the second question came perilously close to a concession that a reasonable officer could view the interaction as an argument, we must read the second answer in concert with the first. And reading the two answers together, it is reasonable to infer that Stryker meant only that it would be unsurprising if Officer Davis interpreted the interaction as an argument, not that reasonable officers generally could hold that view.

    Can I just say that “having an argument with a cop” should not be a reason to tase, assault, pepper spray, or arrest someone? IMO, the officer’s reaction should still be considered unreasonable even if a reasonable officer could “interpret[] the interaction as an argument”?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 8:50am

    No-one deliberately prevents exculpatory evidence

    If a cop turns a camera off they should not just be assumed to be lying in anything they say, with all weight given to the civilian's claims but they should be stripped of their authority as a police officer for anything they do during the period that could have been recorded, so qualified immunity would be thrown right out the window from the outset and their actions treated as though someone without a badge did them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Richard M (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 9:06am

    Why no truck camera?

    I would think by now any company insuring OTR truckers would require at least dash cams by now.

    Also why are cops allowed to turn off their dash cams? I can see that there might be a very limited number of reasons for turning off body cams but I can not think of any reason why they should be allowed to turn off dash cams.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:12am

      Re: Why no truck camera?

      A dash cam traditionally records forward, to show what the driver was seeing. These products are focused on providing evidence that the driver of the car reacted properly to something happening while driving and gained popularity initially as a means of defeating assumptions that grifters relied on to commit insurance scams. Cops however place themselves behind a scene, in part so the dash cam can capture events.

      A truck dash cam is and was unlikely to have caught any interactions between the cop and driver because the driver and cop were unlikly to ever be in front of the truck's dash. Moreover, widely available models will generally not be active while the car is off because of limited disk space and to not drain the vehicle battery preventing the capture of even an audio exchange with the cop. (The company is concerned about accidents the trucker might be blamed for, not protecting him from bad cops).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TFG, 6 Nov 2020 @ 12:13pm

      Re: Why no truck camera?

      Also why are cops allowed to turn off their dash cams? I can see that there might be a very limited number of reasons for turning off body cams but I can not think of any reason why they should be allowed to turn off dash cams.

      You are correct; there's no good reason to have them allowed to be turned off during any stop or public interaction. That this is allowed is evidence of extreme myopia (most likely willful) on the part of policy makers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DB (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:10am

    Without knowing if there is a pattern of turning off the camera it's difficult to guess at the intent.

    Perhaps the police officer knew the putative "victim" and wanted to pressure the driver into accepting false blame for a previous accident, so that the trucking company insurance would pay off a damage claim.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:19am

      Without knowing if there is a pattern of turning off the camera it's difficult to guess at the intent.

      The fact that they turned off the camera regardless of any prior history of doing so should speak volumes about the intent on its own. Any cop who knowingly stops recording should have their credibility questioned in any legal proceeding, civil or criminal.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 10:43am

      Re:

      This circumstance is a perfect highlight of why police dash cams exist. if they position themselves as they pull up, that camera should have an excellent view. The officer was called to the scene of an accident, for which documentation Procedure would be to record this interaction, both to document the scene, and to document interactions with the public, particularly those who will likely be on edge from an accident, so a video if not an audio record exists. There is only 1 reason to actively turn off your own police dash cam to prevent a record of what you do next. Whatever the cop wanted to do, it was something immoral or illegal you don't want documented. Which of course is how the article positions his motives.

      That's how you know you're going to get the best protecting/serving: when a cop turns off his camera before interacting with you. There are zero reasons to turn off a camera. Video redaction isn't some sorcery years away from practical use. If a cop turns off a camera, it's because they want to engage in behavior citizens (and possibly courts) might find abusive.
      The hypothetical you pose is well covered by Techdirt's position. You might be referring to more specific motives asserted by commentators, but you also don't make that clear, so I can't guess at your intent and have to assume you are responding directly to the article as a top level comment. So im not sure why you are harping on the Officer's intent, as not documenting the stop is the intent both you and techdirt assert.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 12:19pm

    correction

    and it's easier to keep bad cops around then follow through with discipline.

    then -> than to

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bobvious, 6 Nov 2020 @ 1:29pm

    Routine Traffic ESCALATION

    FTFY

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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