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Force used by deputy in arresting Plaintiff was excessive in view of the circumstances of the arrest

 

In Stephens v. DeGiovanni, the Plaintiff Stephens filed a lawsuit against Deputy DeGiovanni of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office arising out of his arrest. Two of his claims raised in this appeal for false seizure (arrest) and excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. In this appeal to the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals, Stephens challenged the trial court grant of summary judgment to the deputy on the false arrest claim there was probable cause for the arrest. The trial judge also granted summary judgement on the excessive force claim because the force used in the arrest was de minimis.

The facts surrounding this arrest took place on February 16, 2009 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in an apartment complex where Stephens and his cousin were guests of the cousin’s girlfriend, Claudia White. White’s apartment was on the second floor of a complex with businesses on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. Stephens and his cousin were checking on a car owned by Stephens girlfriend that she was planning to sell to White. White, who is a car mechanic, was sitting on the metal frame of the care using a diagnostic scanner to determine why a check engine light had come on.

Deputy DeGiovanni was on road patrol at 8:15 pm and aware of recent burglaries in the area. Because it was late and all the businesses were closed he decided to investigate so he approached and asked what they were doing. After they explained what they were doing, the deputy informed them that they were not supposed to be there. They explained they were invited guest of White who lived at the complex. The deputy asked for identification and Stephens produced a State of Florida identification card. He possessed a driver’s license issued in Jamaica where was from. While standing by the deputy Stephen’s phone rang. When he answered it the deputy slapped it away. When Stephens asked the deputy to get a field supervisor on the scene, the deputy told him to shut his mouth. The deputy then slugged Stephens in his chest slamming him into the driver’s seat. The deputy proceeded to hit Stephens two more times causing injury to his hand and arm.

Stephens was handcuffed so tight it caused him to lose the feeling in his hands. Stephens did not resist being handcuffed nor did he raise his voice.  He was not observed driving the girlfriend’s car.  The state dismissed the resisting an officer without violence charge but Stephens pled nolo contendere to the misdemeanor of driving without a license as proof. Under Florida law Stephens had a judgment of conviction for driving without a valid driver’s license. For this reason, his plea and conviction established probable cause for his arrest and the court of appeals upheld the summary judgment for qualified immunity.

As for the excessive force civil rights claim, the conduct of driving without a driver’s license, leading up to the arrest, was at the lowest misdemeanor side of the spectrum of criminal conduct. Based on the lack on the plaintiff’s allegations of a lack of any evidence Stephens attempted to resist the deputy’s investigation or that he evaded arrest by fleeing, and there was no need for the deputy to have used any force on Stephens. The excessive force claim he also presented medical evidence establishing unprovoked force exerted on Stephens by the deputy. Determining whether an injury occurring during an arrest resulted from excessive force by the officer depends on the particular circumstances of the arrest.

The appellate court requires a plaintiff asserting an excessive force claim to have suffered at least some form of injury. The amount of injury necessary to satisfy the requirement of some injury and establish a constitutional violation is directly related to the amount of force that is constitutionally permissible under the circumstances. Here the court found that there was evidence the deputy employed gratuitous use of force on a suspect that was not resisting arrest and the obvious clarity facts for a violation of Stephen’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force.