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10th Circuit Weighs in on Qualified Immunity

Police lights visible through the windshield as the surroundings go by in a blur
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

In November 2016, a stabbing victim told Okfuskee County Sheriff's Department Deputies Blake Frost and Zachary Scribner that he had been attacked by a man named Josh Williams. According to the victim, Williams fled from the incident in a large black Chevrolet pickup with a loud exhaust and a trailer attached.

As the deputies searched for Williams' vehicle, Frost spotted a dark Chevrolet truck without a trailer backing out of a driveway. Thinking it could be Williams, Frost began following the pickup and radioed his partner.

But, the driver of the truck wasn't Williams. It was Okehmah, Oklahoma resident James Carl Coale. And by the time his interaction with the deputies was over, he was dead.

Mistaken Identity Leads to Tragedy

Frost continued following Coale at a distance without activating his emergency lights until Coale made a U-turn and ended up in front of Scribner. Then, Frost changed lanes and stopped his vehicle directly in Coale's path.

Instead of approaching Coale's vehicle on the passenger side, Frost walked around the back of his car and approached Coale's driver's side - putting himself in the middle of the road.

He pointed his gun at Coale, who, presumably in a panic, accelerated forward and around Frost. As the vehicle passed him, Frost fired five to seven times.

Coale died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Timing is Everything

Coale's estate administrator filed a Section 1983 claim against Deputy Frost, alleging he used excessive force in violation of Coale's Fourth Amendment rights. Frost argued he was entitled to qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity generally protects law enforcement officers from civil liability as long as their conduct doesn't clearly violate the Constitution or other established statute. It's a broad umbrella and relies heavily on the facts of each case.

In affirming the district court's decision, the 10th Circuit panel found that Frost's actions were objectively unreasonable - and therefore not protected by qualified immunity.

Citing Supreme Court precedent, the panel pointed out that the use of deadly force "to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable." The panel conceded that officers can use deadly force when threatened by a weapon or, in this case, a vehicle. However, a level of force that almost guarantees death must be based on more than reckless driving.

The 10th Circuit found that although several factors weighed in favor of Frost, the fact that he didn't fire until after the vehicle had nearly passed him made his use of force unreasonable.

"[T]here was no immediate danger to other officers or civilians, and the only risk at the moment the gun was fired was that created by Mr. Coale fleeing from the stop."

As conversations continue around excessive force and qualified immunity, and with the Supreme Court set to take up the issue again this fall, this case adds to the list of circumstances where force is seen as unconstitutional.

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