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Brooks v. City of Seattle

March 26, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington D.C. No. 2:06-cv-01681-RAJ Richard A. Jones, District Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hall, Circuit Judge



Argued and Submitted July 10, 2009 -- Seattle, Washington

Before: Cynthia Holcomb Hall, Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, and Marsha S. Berzon, Circuit Judges.

Sergeant Steven Daman, Officer Juan Ornelas, and Officer Donald Jones (collectively "the Officers") appeal the district court's denial of the Officers' motion for summary judgment on Malaika Brooks's § 1983 and state law claims. Brooks had sued the City of Seattle, the Seattle Police Department ("SPD") and its chief, as well as the Officers, based on the Officers' alleged excessive force when they tased her three times to effect her arrest. The district court denied the Officers' motion for summary judgment,*fn1 finding that they were not entitled to qualified immunity for their actions. The Officers challenge that denial. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We reverse.


On November 23, 2004, SPD Officer Juan Ornelas stopped Brooks for speeding in a school zone.*fn2 The situation deteriorated rather quickly. Brooks claimed she had not been speed- ing, took her driver's license out of Officer Ornelas's ticket book and only reluctantly gave it back, and then repeatedly refused to sign a Notice of Infraction ("Notice") regarding her speeding violation.*fn3 When SPD Officer Jones arrived at the scene, Officer Ornelas told him that Brooks had refused to sign the Notice and was being uncooperative. Officer Jones tried to obtain her signature himself, but Brooks also refused his entreaties, despite assurances that signing was not tantamount to admitting the violation. She accused Officer Jones of lying to her about the import of signing,*fn4 suggested he was being racist, and became upset, repeating "I'm not signing, I'm not signing" over and over. Throughout, she remained in the car with the ignition running.

Officer Ornelas then called his supervisor, SPD Sergeant Daman. When Sergeant Daman arrived, Brooks continued to refuse to sign the Notice. Sergeant Daman then asked her "if [she] was going to sign the ticket." When she refused, he told Officers Ornelas and Jones to "[b]ook her." They attempted to follow those orders.

Brooks refused to leave her car, remaining in it with the ignition running and her door shut. Officer Jones then showed Brooks his Taser, explaining that it would hurt "extremely bad" if applied. Brooks told them she was pregnant and that she needed to use the restroom. The officers discussed where to tase her, deciding on her thigh. Officer Jones demonstrated the Taser for her. Brooks still remained in the car, so Officer Ornelas opened the door and reached over to take the key out of the ignition, dropping the keys on the floorboard.*fn5

Officer Ornelas then employed a pain compliance technique, bringing Brooks's left arm up behind her back, whereon Brooks stiffened her body and clutched the steering wheel in order to frustrate her removal from the car. Officer Jones discharged the Taser against Brooks's thigh, through her sweat pants, which caused Brooks "tremendous pain." She began to yell and honk the car's horn.

Within the next minute, Officer Jones tased her two more times, against her shoulder and neck, the latter being the only area of exposed skin. Brooks was unable to get out of the car herself during this time because her arm was still behind her back.*fn6 The third tasing moved Brooks to the right, at which point Officers Ornelas and Jones were able to extract her from the car through a combination of pushing and pulling. She was immediately seen by medical professionals, and two months later delivered a healthy baby.

Brooks was charged with (1) violation of Seattle Municipal Code 11.59.090 for refusing to sign the Notice, and (2) resisting arrest. She was convicted of the first charge, but the jury hung on the second, which was later dismissed.

Brooks then filed this action against the Officers, asserting a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and assault and battery claims under state tort law for the alleged excessive force. The district court denied the Officers' motion for summary judgment on those claims, finding a clearly established constitutional violation that deprived the Officers of qualified immunity on both the federal and state claims.


We review de novo a denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity. See Lee v. Gregory, 363 F.3d 931, 932 (9th Cir. 2004). Our review is limited to the question of whether, assuming all conflicts in the evidence are resolved in Brooks's favor, the Officers would be entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Id.


Qualified immunity entitles the Officers "not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation" on the § 1983 claim, provided their conduct did not violate a clearly established federal right. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). The qualified immunity inquiry asks two questions: (1) was there a violation of a constitutional right, and, if so, then (2) was the right at issue "clearly established" such that it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in that situation?*fn7 See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201-02 (2001), overruled on other grounds by Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808 (2009). If the Officers' actions do not amount to a constitutional violation, the violation was not clearly established, or their actions reflected a reasonable mistake about what the law requires, they are entitled to qualified immunity. See Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463, 471 (9th Cir. 2007).

A. Constitutional Violation

In her complaint, Brooks alleged that the Officers violated her constitutional rights by using excessive force during her arrest.

1. Probable Cause

Beginning in her opposition to the Officers' motion for summary judgment, Brooks has argued that the Officers did not have probable cause to arrest her for refusing to sign the Citation to Appear because she did not so refuse. Therefore, she contends, there was no need for force, and any force used was constitutionally unreasonable. See Headwaters Forest Def. v. County of Humboldt, 240 F.3d 1185, 1204 (9th Cir. 2000). As an initial matter, we note that "establishing a lack of probable cause . . . does not establish an excessive force claim," Beier v. City of Lewiston, 354 F.3d 1058, 1064 (9th Cir. 2004). Thus, the result, even if we were to find no probable cause, is not as obvious as Brooks would make it. Indeed, an arrestee's resistance may support the use of force regardless of whether probable cause existed. See Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Transp. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 922 (9th Cir. 2001) (finding an arrestee's actions in "stiffen[ing] her arm and attempt[ing] to pull it away" to be resistance justifying the officer's use of force in handcuffing regardless of whether there was probable cause to arrest her).

[1] Nonetheless, the existence of probable cause may be considered as a part of the totality of circumstances affecting the excessive force analysis. See Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689 (9th Cir. 2005) (permitting consideration of whether the officer's conduct "violated applicable police standards" in assessing the reasonableness of the force used). It also impacts the question of state law immunity on the assault and battery claims. See Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.16.020(1) (finding force used by a police officer not unlawful "[w]henever necessarily used . . . in the performance of a legal duty"); Staats v. Brown, 991 P.2d 615, 627-28 (Wash. 2000) (describing state qualified immunity on assault and battery as dependent upon whether the force used to effect the arrest was excessive). Thus, we consider whether the Officers had probable cause to arrest Brooks.

[2] "Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge are sufficient to cause a reasonably prudent person to believe that a crime has been committed." Lassiter v. City of Bremerton, 556 F.3d 1049, 1053 (9th Cir. 2009). Though we agree with the district court that the Officers did have probable cause to arrest Brooks, we arrive at that conclusion by a different path.*fn8

[3] Brooks concedes that she refused to sign the Notice, which amounted to a violation of Seattle Municipal Code § 11.59.090(c). For the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, this is sufficient to find probable cause. See Virginia v. Moore, 128 S.Ct. 1598, 1606-07 (2008) (holding that an arrest based on probable cause does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even if the relevant criminal offense is nonarrestable under state law).

However, because Virginia v. Moore does not answer the question of whether the Officers were following departmental standards or are entitled to state law immunity, we march on. Brooks's arguments are all based on the premise that (1) she could not be arrested for refusing to sign the Notice and (2) although she could be arrested for refusing to sign the Citation, she never received it. However, she does not argue that she was detained longer than was reasonably necessary under Section 46.64.015 or that her conduct during that period of detention could not provide grounds for lawful arrest.

[4] First, the Officers had clear authority for their initial arrest and detention of Brooks. Brooks does not dispute that her initial traffic violation permitted the Officers to arrest and to detain her until they issued her a Notice. See Wash. Rev. Code § 46.64.015 (2004) ("The arrested person, in order to secure release, and when permitted by the arresting officer, must give his or her written promise to appear in court as required by the citation and notice by singing in the appropriate place . . .").*fn9 In addition, Brooks's refusal to sign the Notice gave the Officers probable cause to continue to detain her. Under Washington law, a police officer may arrest an individual for committing a misdemeanor in his presence. Wash. Rev. Code § 10.31.100. Failure to sign the Notice is a misdemeanor. See Wash. Rev. Code § 46.61.022 (making failure to comply with Wash. Rev. Code § 46.61.021(3), which includes a requirement to sign the Notice, a misdemeanor). As there is no dispute that Brooks's refusal to sign the Notice took place in the presence of the Officers, there can be no question that Washington law authorized her arrest.

[5] The Officers' authority to arrest Brooks for these misdemeanors would ordinarily last no longer than necessary to issue her a Citation. See Wash. Rev. Code § 46.64.015 (2004).

However, her conduct during this initial detention gave the Officers probable cause to place her under custodial arrest for other violations of state law-a point that Brooks does not dispute. For instance, we find that probable cause existed to arrest Brooks for obstructing an officer. See Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.76.020. "A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties." Id.; see Lassiter, 556 F.3d at 1051, 1053 (listing the crime's elements as "1) an action or inaction that hinders, delays, or obstructs the officers; 2) while the officers are in the midst of their official duties; 3) the defendant knows the officers are discharging a public duty; [and] 4) the action or inaction is done knowingly"). That violation is a gross misdemeanor for which custodial arrest is appropriate. See Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.76.020(3), 10.31.100. While trying to obtain Brooks's signature on the Notice, the officers were acting in the discharge of their official duties. See Wash. Rev. Code §§ 46.61.021, 46.63.060(2)(j) (official duties when completing and issuing Notice, which requires signature); State v. Richards, 36 P.3d 1119, (Wash. 2001) (official duties when seeking signature on Citation to Appear).

[6] Based on Brooks's undisputed uncooperative behavior, a reasonably prudent person would have believed Brooks was violating section 9A.76.020 by obstructing the Officers' attempts to obtain her signature and complete the traffic stop. Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.76.020(1); see Lassiter, 556 F.3d at 1053 (finding probable cause to arrest an individual for obstructing a police officer when that individual declined to follow instructions and grabbed the officer's arm when the officer placed a hand on him). The record reflects that Brooks's detention was lengthened and the situation escalated by her own resistance. The Officers were attempting-and Brooks knew they were attempting-to complete and issue the Notice by securing her signature on it as required by sections 46.61.021 and 46.63.060(2)(j). Her behavior interfered with their lawful attempts to carry out that duty. Therefore, the Officers had probable cause to arrest Brooks.

Additionally, Washington state courts have recognized that although officers generally should issue citations for minor traffic violations instead of making custodial arrests, there might be "reasonable grounds" for making an arrest, such as when "there was reasonable grounds to believe that the accused will refuse to respond to a citation." State v. Hehman, 578 P.2d 527, 528-29 (Wash. 1978); see State v. Covington, 144 Wash. App. 1012 (Wash. Ct. App. 2008) (finding it reasonable to believe that person without identification, claiming not to own the vehicle he was driving, would disregard a promise to appear on the citation if one were given); State v. Jordan, 747 P.2d 1096, 1098 (Wash. Ct. App. 1987) (same); State v. McIntosh, 712 P.2d 319 (Wash. Ct. App. 1986) (same and defendant also gave suspicious account of his activity on evening of arrest).

[7] Even if Brooks never in fact received the Citation, her conduct while in detention for the speeding violation and failure to sign the Notice made it reasonable to believe that she also would not sign a Citation were one issued. Brooks has admitted being uncooperative during her detention: she tried to take her driver's license away from Officer Ornelas; repeatedly refused his requests to sign the Notice; repeatedly refused Officer Jones's requests to do the same, even when told it was her legal duty to sign; accused Officer Jones of lying to her about the law and of racism; and became upset, all while sitting in her car with the ignition running. Officer Ornelas called for backup because of her behavior. When Sergeant Daman arrived at the scene, he asked her again to sign, and she refused. Under these particular circumstances, it would be reasonable to believe that serving Brooks the Citation would be futile. Therefore, even if Brooks's account of the incident were true, the futility of issuing the Citation would provide the Officers probable cause to arrest her for failure to sign the Notice.

2. Excessive Force

[8] An excessive force claim is analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 388 (1989). This inquiry "requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake." Id. at 396 (internal quotation marks omitted). Because reasonableness "is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application," the inquiry requires "attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including [1] the severity of the crime at issue, [2] whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and [3] whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id. These factors should be considered in relation to the amount of force used. See Smith, 394 F.3d at 701. Reasonableness is judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, making allowances for the split-second judgments officers are required to make in "tense, uncertain, and rapidly-evolving" situations. Graham, 490 U.S. at 396-97.

The right to employ "some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof" to effect an arrest accompanies the right to make the arrest or investigatory stop, id. at 396, but the force must be necessary to be reasonable, Blankenhorn, 485 F.3d at 480. Where police have control over a suspect, the use of further force to bring the suspect under control may be unreasonable. See Headwaters Forest Def., 276 F.3d at 1125 (use of pepper spray on protesters already under police control held excessive). Officers are not required to use the least intrusive means available; they simply must act within the range of reasonable conduct. See Scott v. Heinrich, 39 F.3d 912, 915 (9th Cir. 1994). Determination of that reasonable range requires consideration of the totality of the circumstances, Forrester v. City of San Diego, 25 F.3d 804, 806 n.2 (9th Cir. 1994), including whether a warning was given, Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F.3d 1272, 1283-84 (9th Cir. 2001), and the availability of alternative methods of capturing and subduing a suspect, Smith, 394 F.3d at 701-02. The fact that a suspect does not threaten the officer does not shield him from the use of force. See Forrester, 25 F.3d at 807-09 (finding no Fourth Amendment violation when officers used injury-causing pain compliance techniques on passively resisting demonstrators).

The Officers argue that the use of a Taser to gain Brooks's compliance-after previous unsuccessful, lawful attempts to gain her cooperation and warnings the Taser would be used- was not objectively unreasonable. The Officers note that a Taser's use in "drive-stun" mode inflicts only transitory, localized pain. Applying the Graham factors, the Officers first claim that the alleged crime was the more serious crime of resisting arrest, not the failure to sign the Notice. Second, they contend that, although Brooks initially posed only a minimal risk, that risk escalated when she became confrontational and refused to leave her running car. Third, and finally, they point out that Brooks was actively resisting arrest by using force to immobilize herself and remain in the car.

a. The Amount of Force

We first assess the quantum of force used by the Officers. See Davis v. City of Las Vegas, 478 F.3d 1048, 1055 (9th Cir. 2007). The Officers claim there has been a significant misunderstanding of the force involved in the manner in which the Taser was used here. We are inclined to agree.

[9] The Taser's use in "touch" or "drive-stun" mode-as the Officers used it here-involves touching the Taser to the body and causes temporary, localized pain only. According to the SPD's Use of Force Training Guideline,*fn10 this usage was considered a Level 1 tactic, akin to "pain compliance applied through the use of distraction, counter-joint holds, hair control holds, [and pepper spray]" and used to control passively or actively resisting suspects. By contrast, applying a Taser in dart mode (wherein darts are shot at the suspect from some distance) achieves greater distance between the contact nodes which can cause neuro-muscular incapacitation. In dart mode, the Taser's use is a Level 2 tactic to be employed only against aggressive resistance. The district court did not differentiate between the possible modes of use, noting only that the Taser was discharged on Brooks's thigh, shoulder, and neck, causing "a level of force (whether once or three times) that hurt 'extremely bad,' " and constituted a "quantum leap" from the previous force employed. These comments suggest the district court thought the force used was severe. We find this to be an overestimation that led the court to err in finding excessive force.

In two recent decisions, we addressed excessive force claims involving the use of Tasers. See Mattos v. Agarano, 590 F.3d 1082 (9th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (holding that the use of a Taser stun on a suspected domestic violence victim while attempting to arrest her husband did not amount to excessive force); Bryan v. McPherson, 590 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009) (holding that shooting a Taser gun at a disoriented, half-naked man while stopping him for a seatbelt violation constituted excessive force).

The Mattos court did not engage in an in-depth analysis of the quantum of force involved in the use of a Taser. See 590 F.3d at 1087 ("[I]t is difficult for us to opine with confidence regarding either the quantum of force involved in a deployment of a Taser gun or the type of force inflicted."). In Mattos, a police officer applied a Taser directly to plaintiff's back, causing her to feel "an incredible burning and painful feeling locking all of [her] joints." Id. at 1085 (internal quotation marks omitted; alteration in original). The panel, however, cited conflicting testimony regarding the amount of force used and the severity of plaintiff's injuries. Id. at 1087. It observed that "the Taser, in general, is more than a non-serious or trivial use of force but less than deadly force," and noted that "[u]nfortunately, there is a lot of room between these end points." Id. The panel noted that "the record on this point is not as developed as we could hope for," but concluded that "the Taser stun was a serious intrusion into the core of the interests protected by the Fourth Amendment."*fn11 Id. The Mattos panel did not differentiate drive-stun and dart modes, nor did it differentiate the quantum of force used on Mattos from the quantum of force used in Bryan.

The Bryan panel undertook a more detailed analysis of the quantum of force. The panel concluded that the use of a Taser, in a manner equivalent to dart mode, "constitute[s] an intermediate, significant level of force that must be justified by a strong government interest that compels the employment of such force." Bryan, 590 F.3d at 774 (internal quotation marks omitted).*fn12 In Bryan, a police officer discharged his X26 Taser from a distance of approximately 20-25 feet, embedding a barbed electrical probe into Bryan's arm. Id. at 771. The X26's powerful electrical pulse delivered an excruciating pain throughout Bryan's body and caused Bryan to lose all muscular control, fall face first onto the pavement, shatter four front teeth, and suffer facial abrasions and swell- ing. Id. He also needed to have the electrical barb surgically removed from his flesh. Id. at 773. Because the pain inflicted by the X26 Taser was "intense, [was] felt throughout the body, and [was] administered by effectively commandeering the victim's muscles and nerves," we held the X26 Taser to be "an intermediate or medium, though not insignificant, quantum of force." Id. at 774-75.*fn13

[10] The force at issue here is markedly different than the force in Bryan, and, unlike in Mattos, we have the benefit of a fully-developed record on the use of a Taser in drive-stun mode. The use of the Taser in drive-stun mode is painful, certainly, but also temporary and localized, without incapacitating muscle contractions or significant lasting injury. Brooks said she sustained burn marks and now has scars on her upper arm and thigh, which is certainly not insignificant, but these injuries are far less serious than those inflicted on Bryan by the X26 Taser-excruciating pain throughout his entire body, temporary paralysis, facial abrasions, shattered teeth, and a sharp barb lodged into his flesh. Thus, the use of the Taser in drive-stun mode-as opposed to dart mode-seems unlike the force used in Bryan or uses of force which this court has previously considered severe. See, e.g., Davis, 478 F.3d at 1055 (holding that the force used was "extremely severe" when officer slammed suspect head-first into the wall, breaking his neck, then pressed to the ground by the officer's knee and punched); Smith, 394 F.3d at 701-02 (severe when officers pepper sprayed suspect four times and sicced a police dog on him three times while he was pinned down, then failed to rinse the spray from his eyes and bite wounds). Indeed, the amount of force here was more on par with pain compliance techniques,*fn14 which this court has found involve a "less significant" intrusion upon an individual's personal security than ...

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