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Uneasy Rider: Cop Denied Qualified Immunity in Motorcycle Death

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

If at first you don't intercept a speeding motorcyclist, run him over with a police cruiser?

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a police officer who "intentionally" rammed a speeding motorcyclist was not entitled to qualified immunity in civil litigation resulting from the incident because he had clearly violated the motorcyclist's constitutional rights.

Thomas Germany was killed in 2008 while riding a motorcycle across an empty field after a low-speed police chase, when Deputy Sheriff Danny Davis rammed the motorcycle that he was riding. Germany was thrown from the motorcycle and dragged underneath the cruiser, crushing him to death.

Shortly before the incident, a police officer had clocked Germany riding his motorcycle at 70 miles per hour in a 55 miles per hour zone. That officer tried to pull Germany over for speeding, but Germany refused to stop. Deputy Davis heard about the pursuit over the radio and joined in the chase. The entire pursuit lasted about five minutes and took place on empty stretches of highway. because he had clearly violated the motorcyclist's constitutional rights.

Thomas Germany never went above 60 miles per hour during the chase itself. He ran one red light.

Qualified immunity shields "government officials performing discretionary functions ... from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." The doctrine allows an officer to make a reasonable mistake as to what the law requires, and still receive qualified immunity.

Here, the court reasoned that plowing down Germany's motorcycle because Germany evaded a traffic stop in a low-speed chase was excessive; Germany posed no immediate threat to anyone as he rode his motorcycle across an empty field in the middle of the night in rural Kentucky.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, when the viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Germany's estate, (hence the "intentional" qualifier), decided Deputy Davis's mistake was not reasonable. The court determined that the facts demonstrated a violation of a clearly established constitutional right; that does not, however, mean that the court ruled Deputy Davis intentionally rammed Germany's motorcycle. The question of whether Deputy David acted intentionally - he maintains that he was unable to stop - is an ultimate issue for a jury.

Do you agree with the Sixth Circuit that Deputy Davis's pursuit was not a reasonable mistake?

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