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8th Cir. Puts Brakes on Trooper Immunity in High-Speed Chase Case

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on November 07, 2013 2:56 PM

Qualified immunity cases involving law enforcement are always hip and happening in the circuit. But qualified immunity cases involving a high-speed chase? Now we're really talking.

The Eighth Circuit put its seatbelt on and weathered a bumpy legal ride that explored whether an individual state trooper could claim sovereign immunity for his actions during an arrest following a high-speed chase.

Vroom Vroom: Sovereign Immunity

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 patrol vehicle, kicking Coker in the face, and breaking bones in Coker's face by repeatedly striking him with a metal flashlight.

The three-member panel of the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court in part, holding that the lower court correctly found that the Arkansas State Police was immune from Coker's suit under the Eleventh Amendment's grant of sovereign immunity.

Further, the panel also agreed with the district court that no injunctive relief could be ordered against Cartwright in his official capacity because Coker failed to make a cognizable claim.

Screeeech!: Partial Remand

The district court's entry of summary judgment against Coker was what the panel put the brakes on. According to the panel, Coker presented "several genuine disputes of material fact regarding Cartwright's conduct that, if true, preclude a grant of qualified immunity."

The dispute is centered on what went down with the metal flashlight. Unfortunately, the flashlight beating occurred out of the view of Cartwright's dash camera.

  • Cartwright's stirring rendition: The high-speed chase reached 150 mph and he only used as much force as was necessary to arrest a resisting suspect. If he struck Coker with a flashlight, it was an accident.
  • Coker's equally stirring rendition: He was following Cartwright's orders and was beaten after he was already lying down to submit to arrest.

Playing Driver and Passenger

At the end of the day, the panel determined it's impossible to know at the summary judgment stage exactly what happened that night and that these disputes of fact must go to a jury.

For attorneys with clients involved in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, it's a reminder that video and audio is critical to obtaining summary judgment. When a court grants summary judgment without those aids, get ready for a possible reversal.

From the panel's perspective, it seems such a decision forces judges to preemptively "make credibility determinations" and "weigh evidence" in a manner that improperly "remove[s] the credibility assessment from the jury."

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