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Eighth circuit rules in favor of Iowa cop in excessive force case

The court ruled that an officer’s use of deadly force was objectively reasonable because of the threat of death presented by an unarmed man


On August 3, 2018, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a favorable ruling by a lower federal court in favor of Cedar Falls, Iowa, police officer Bob Anderson. [1]

The Incident

Anderson was on routine patrol during the early morning hours of December 25, 2013, when he noticed a vehicle parked with its motor running. He found Zachary Church sitting in the driver’s seat and detected an odor of alcohol and burnt marijuana. After frisking Church and finding no weapons, Anderson escorted him toward his patrol car.

This case represents a significant victory for officers operating in the jurisdiction of the Eighth Circuit. (Photo/uscourts.gov)
This case represents a significant victory for officers operating in the jurisdiction of the Eighth Circuit. (Photo/uscourts.gov)

Suddenly Church, a 268-pound male, landed a roundhouse punch to the head of Anderson, who weighed 80 pounds less than Church. He knocked Anderson to his knees and continued to pummel him. During the attack, Anderson felt a tug on his duty belt where he kept his firearm. Feeling exhausted and lightheaded, Anderson feared for his life and told Church he would shoot him if he didn’t cease. Church continued, and Anderson shot him once in the abdomen from a distance of 18 to 24 inches.

Church drew back but started forward again, prompting Anderson to shoot him twice more in rapid succession from a distance of at least 4 feet. One shot entered Church’s front left shoulder and the second entered his back, right shoulder. During the incident, Anderson did not activate his vehicle’s audio-video recording system. Church had no memory of his altercation with Anderson.

Church survived and was subsequently charged with assault on a peace officer with intent to inflict serious injury. The criminal case jury returned a verdict against Church for the lesser included crime of assault on a peace officer. Church subsequently sued Anderson in his individual and official capacity [2] for excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. The Federal District Court Judge ruled in favor of Officer Anderson and the unanimous three judge Eighth Circuit affirmed on appeal.

Valuable findings for LE officers

The court’s analysis of this case contained several instructive and salient points:

  • First the court rejected a claim by Church that there should be an evidentiary presumption against an officer (e.g., that he acted with excessive force) at the pre-trial stage of a case when the officer fails to activate his audio-visual equipment. If adopted, the presumption would have forced the case (and future cases) to proceed to trial. The court stated, “We decline to adopt such a radical solution.”
  • The court determined that Anderson’s use of force was objectively reasonable pursuant to the Supreme Court’s test in Graham v. Connor. [3] The court ruled that Church posed an immediate threat to Anderson by resisting in the manner that he did.
  • The court explained, “Weighing approximately 268 pounds, Church was far larger than Anderson. Anderson testified that he feared that he might lose consciousness and that Church could potentially access his service weapon and kill him. Given the size difference … and the ‘tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving’ situation, it was reasonable for him to use deadly force to defend himself.”
  • Church claimed that Anderson should have used less lethal means to bring him under control. The court in response observed, “As for the availability of less lethal force, Anderson testified that he could not reach his taser or pepper spray --- which were on the opposite side of his duty belt … due to Church’s repeated punches. But even if we assume that Anderson could have used these alternatives, an officer need not ‘pursue the most prudent course of conduct as judged by 20/20 hindsight vision.’” [4]
  • The court also observed that Anderson did warn Church before he shot him the first time and was not required to re-warn him before firing his second and third shots. The court explained, “Anderson was not required to warn Church before each shot and was permitted to use force until the threat had ended.”
  • The court next rejected Church’s claim that Anderson’s third shot, which hit him in the right rear shoulder, involved excessive force. The court observed that the second and third shots were fired in rapid succession and the second shot hit Church in the front. The court explained, “This would be a different case if Anderson had initiated a second round of shots after an initial round had clearly incapacitated Church … but that is not what happened.”

Conclusion

This case represents a significant victory for officers operating in the jurisdiction of the Eighth Circuit. [5] It also represents persuasive authority for other federal appellate courts in other sections of the country facing similar situations. Here a lone officer was sucker punched, knocked down and brutally attacked by a much larger man. Although unarmed, the court ruled that the man presented a serious threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer and determined that the officer’s use of deadly force to save his life was objectively reasonable. The court should be applauded for its clear and common-sense opinion.

References

1. Church v. Anderson, Individually and in his Official Capacity as a Police Officer for the Cedar Falls Police Department, (No. 17-2077) (8th Cir. 2018).

2. Suing an officer in his official capacity is tantamount to a suit against the municipality that employs him.

3. 490 U.S. 386, 396-397 (1989).

4. Quoting, Retz v. Seaton, 741 F.3d 913, 918 (8th Cir.2014).

5. The Eighth Circuit covers the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

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