A state trooper who shot a woman taken hostage during a 2016 bank robbery in Eufaula "is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage" of a civil rights lawsuit alleging the use of excessive force, a federal appeals court ruled.
The three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's determination that Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Christopher Reeves "saw and intentionally shot" Julie Huff. In a 20-page opinion, the appellate court notes that determination was based on a "self-serving account" presented by Reeves.
Huff was at the bank Jan. 21, 2016, when Cedric Norris entered, "murdered the bank president, grabbed some money from tellers, and took Ms. Huff hostage." Norris forced "her to drive the getaway vehicle," which crashed following a pursuit by law enforcers from at least three agencies.
Norris, according to court documents, fired at officers and fled in one direction after he got out of the getaway vehicle. Huff "raised her arms" when she stepped out of the vehicle and faced the officers," who shot at her.
Huff "fell to the ground, and "Norris came up behind her and used her body as a shield." Law enforcers killed Norris during the shootout that followed, and Huff survived injuries after being shot at least 10 times and filed a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations against Reeves and McIntosh County Sheriff Kevin Ledbetter.
U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White of the Eastern District of Oklahoma dismissed Huff's claims on summary judgment, determining there was "no genuine dispute as to any material fact" in the case. White based the decision in part on Reeves' affirmative defense of qualified immunity, saying "there is no evidence" that he "acted with intent to harm" Huff or "any differently than he would — or could — have had he known she was a hostage."
The appellate court disagreed, noting "the record contains ample evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer" the trooper "saw and intentionally shot Ms. Huff after she exited the SUV." The fact "Huff was repeatedly struck by bullets from Reeves' gun strongly implies that she was in his line of sight."
"The shooting was in broad daylight. And the fact that she was struck by bullets so often ... makes it hard to believe that she was not being aimed at," Circuit Judge Harris L. Hartz writes on behalf of the panel of jurists in their unanimous opinion. "Nor can her being struck so often be blamed on her proximity to Norris, who was struck only four times, compared to her 10."
The appellate court notes that officers, under Fourth Amendment analysis, "are prohibited from using deadly force against a person when it is apparent ... the person poses no physical threat to the officers or others." Huff, the court noted, had "testified that she raised her hands in surrender as she approached the officers when she was first shot."
Lloyd Benedict, who represents Huff in the civil rights lawsuit, said like all legal matters there may be competing versions of the facts. Those facts, he said, should be sorted out by jurors at trial, not by judges before trial.
"Julie Huff is one of the nicest, kindest people there is — she has a son who is a police officer and a nephew, I believe, in the FBI," Benedict said, noting the atypical nature of this excessive force lawsuit. "She comes from a law enforcement family, and she doesn't feel like this was handled properly or with the proper level of accountability."
While the appellate court revived Huff's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, it upheld the district court's dismissal of her 14th Amendment substantive due process claim against Reeves. It also upheld the district court's dismissal of a failure to train claim against Ledbetter.