The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals today sent back for jury review the question of whether an individual state trooper could claim sovereign immunity for his actions in an arrest after a high-speed chase.
Gabriel Coker sued the Arkansas State Police and Trooper Brad Cartwright. He claimed that Cartwright used excessive force by hitting Coker’s motorcycle with his car, kicking Coker in the face, and breaking bones in Coker’s face by hitting with a flashlight.
The 8th Circuit said the district court correctly found that the State Police was immune from suit under the 11th Amendment’s grant of sovereign immunity and no injunctive relief could be ordered against Cartwright in his official capacity.
But, the court said, “Coker does, however, present several genuine disputes of material fact regarding Cartwright’s conduct that, if true, preclude a grant of qualified immunity.”
The chase occurred in February 2009 after Cartwright clocked Coker at 102 mph on divided Highway 67-167. He said the chase reached speeds of 150 mph. The action being challenged mostly occurred out of view of the trooper’s dash camera, after the chase ended. Cartwright said he used only the force necessary to make an arrest of a resisting suspect and that, if he struck Coker with a flashlight, it was inadvertent. Coker alleged that he was compliant and beaten after lying down to submit to arrest. Said the opinion:
When drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Coker, we cannot conclude that Cartwright’s use of force once out of view of the dash camera was objectively reasonable as a matter of law. Rather, a reasonable jury could find that the severity of Coker’s injuries demonstrates excessive force, particularly Cartwright’s decision to strike Coker using a metal flashlight after Coker was already on the ground and allegedly complying with Cartwright’s demands. … Without the aid of video or an understandable audio recording, it is impossible to determine what happened that night after Coker ran out of view of the camera without weighing Cartwright’s version of events against Coker’s story. Making credibility determinations or weighing evidence in this manner is improper at the summary judgment stage, and “it is not our function to remove the credibility assessment from the jury.”
Here’s the lower court opinion in the case, by Judge Susan Webber Wright.