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N.S. v. Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 12, 2019

N.S., Only child of decedent, Ryan Stokes, by and through her natural mother and next friend, Brittany Lee; Narene James Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners; Michael Rader; Leland Shurin; Angela Wasson-Hunt; Alvin Brooks; Mayor Sly James; David Kenner Defendant's, William Thompson Defendant-Appellant Darryl Forte Defendant

          Submitted: April 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City

          Before LOKEN, WOLLMAN, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          STRAS, Circuit Judge.

         Officer William Thompson shot and killed Ryan Stokes during a police chase. The district court ruled that Thompson was not entitled to official or qualified immunity. We vacate and remand for reconsideration.

         I.

         While on patrol early one morning, Thompson and his partner received a radio message that other officers were pursuing two men suspected of theft. Just seconds later, Thompson spotted Stokes, who matched the description of one of the suspects, running into a parking lot. Stokes headed toward the driver's side of a parked car and briefly opened the door. He then quickly turned and moved in the direction of a pursuing officer, who by that point was "very close" to him. Thompson fired at Stokes three times, hitting him twice in the back. Stokes died shortly thereafter.

         Beyond these basic facts, the parties' accounts differ. Thompson claims that he saw Stokes with a gun when he entered the parking lot and believed that he intended to ambush the pursuing officer. Stokes's family argues that Stokes never possessed a gun and was attempting to surrender when he was shot. The parties also dispute whether Thompson said anything to Stokes before firing.

         Some evidence supports Thompson's account. The police discovered a handgun on the driver's seat of the car, which could mean that Stokes was armed when he entered the parking lot but then tossed the gun into the car. And witnesses who saw Stokes running said that he appeared to be "holding up his pants as he ran," which is arguably consistent with Thompson's perception that Stokes was holding a gun. Finally, Thompson's partner claims to have heard Thompson order Stokes to "get on the ground."

         Other evidence supports the family's account. No one besides Thompson observed Stokes with a gun, nor was any gun found on or near his body. The car's owner, who was Stokes's friend, claimed that the gun recovered from the car belonged to him and that it had been there all night. Moreover, some officers did not recall hearing Thompson shout anything during the encounter, and at least one officer thought Stokes was trying to surrender when Thompson shot him.

         Stokes's family sued Thompson for excessive force, see 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and wrongful death, see Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.080. Thompson moved for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity from the federal claim and official immunity from the state claim. In its order, the court recounted the parties' general allegations and then denied both forms of immunity.

         II.

         Cases in which a district court denies qualified immunity at the summary-judgment stage typically follow one of two paths on appeal. First, we may affirm, but only when it is apparent that, if the plaintiff's version of the facts is right, the officer violated a clearly established right. See Raines v. Counseling Assocs., Inc., 883 F.3d 1071, 1074 (8th Cir. 2018). Second, we may reverse because, even under the plaintiff-friendly version of the facts, there was no constitutional violation or the underlying right was not clearly established. See id. ("We have authority to decide the purely legal issue of whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff are a violation of clearly established law." (brackets and citation omitted)). This case falls into a third category.

         Here, the district court fell short in its threshold duty to make "a thorough determination of [Thompson's] claim of qualified immunity." Robbins v. Becker, 715 F.3d 691, 694-95 (8th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). In its summary-judgment order, the court did little more than summarize the parties' allegations and decide that the combination of a "general . . . right to be free from excessive force" and the ...


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