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A civilian cannot be held liable for a false arrest or excessive force claim for briefly assisted a law enforcement officer with an arrest

Charles was arrested by a Dawson County Sheriff’s deputy on an outstanding warrant after he was found inside a car that the deputy had pulled over for speeding. Charles resisted his arrest for over five minutes and the deputy succeeded in subduing Charles with the aid of a civilian bystander and a second deputy.  Charles was convicted of felony obstruction of a law enforcement officer in a Georgia state court.

He sued the two deputies and the civilian in federal court under section 1983 alleging excessive force under Georgia state law and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  His claim against the civilian was that the deputy and the civilian conspired to violate his right to be free of excessive force.

After the trial court dismissed all his federal and state law claims against all the defendants, he unsuccessfully appealed.  In rejecting his claim of a conspiracy between the civilian and the deputy, the court of appeals noted that the only communication between the civilian and deputy during the officer’s struggle to get handcuffs on Charles was, “Sir, can you get a cuff on him?”  This was not an agreement between the two.  A police officer accepting a bystander’s offer to help restrain an arrestee does not transform a bystander into a state actor.   The appeals court found that a civilian rendering brief, ad hoc assistance to a law enforcement officer is not a state action, absent proof of a conspiracy to violate constitutional rights of another.

The appellate court also rejected Charles’s claim that the deputy committed a Fourth Amendment violation of excessive force by tackling him.  The appeals court said that tackling an arrestee cannot be deemed categorically unconstitutional force because under certain circumstances an officer will be authorized to tackle someone under arrest.  Under the totality of these circumstances, even in light most favorable to Charles, the deputy acted reasonably by tackling Charles who was uncooperative.  Considering all the circumstances of the situation that the deputy faced, a tackle was among the least forceful ways to advance the arrest and gain control of the situation.

Charles also claimed the second deputy’s use of a taser was excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The only question on this issue was whether the deputy’s use of a taser constituted excessive force under the totality of the circumstances.  To lose qualified immunity, Charles would have to show the force was clearly excessive.  In view of Charles’ active resistance from being handcuffed and his screaming at one deputy while pushing his body off the pavement after being ordered to stay down, the appeals court found that the use of the taser could not be described as excessive. The claims against both officers were dismissed on the grounds of qualified immunity.

Charles also made a claim against the Sheriff department under the Rehabilitation Act alleging that he was disabled because of his bipolar disorder.  But the appeals court found that bipolar disorder is not a disability under the Act because it is not a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.  Because Charles could not identify the major life activity that his impairment interferes with, he did not fall under the Act.

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