U.S. 5th Circuit holds it was not unconstitutional for office to use non-deadly punches to gain control of the arms of a drunken, actively resisting suspect.

Griggs v. Brewer, No. 16-10221(5th Cir. October 28,2016)

This is a qualified immunity/excessive force claim where the U.S. 5th Circuit affirmed the granting of the officer’s qualified immunity defense.

Officer Charley Brewer conducted a routine traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Tanner Griggs after Griggs ran a red light. After examining Griggs, Officer Brewer attempted to arrest him for driving while intoxicated. Griggs immediately resisted the arrest attempt and a long struggle ensued, captured on audio and video recording. Even while handcuffed, Griggs kicked and struggled when officers attempted to put him in the patrol car. During the struggle, detailed in the opinion, Officer Brewer punched back in order to subdue Griggs. After finally getting Griggs into the patrol car he was transported to the jail facility where officers determined he had a blood-alcohol level of three times the legal limit. Griggs later brought these claims against Officer Brewer in his individual capacity under 42 U.S.C. §1983 asserting he used excessive force in effecting the arrest. The trial court granted Officer Brewer’s summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity. Griggs appealed.

When analyzing qualified immunity, Courts ask whether “the allegedly violated constitutional rights were clearly established at the time of the incident; and, if so, whether the conduct of the defendants was objectively unreasonable in light of that then clearly established law.” While Griggs argued a jury could believe he was not actually resisting arrest, the court determined that was not the proper inquiry. The evaluation must be based on what a reasonable officer would perceive was happening, not what is ultimately determined to have happened.  After analyzing the facts the court determined a reasonable officer could perceive Griggs was resisting and restraint techniques were needed. Further, the court held “Officer Brewer’s conduct in executing the initial takedown was not constitutionally unreasonable in the light of clearly established law. Or, stated differently, our precedent does not clearly establish that this ‘takedown’ maneuver—against a drunken, erratic suspect who is resisting arrest—is constitutionally unreasonable.”  Brewer’s actions “may not have been as restrained as we would like to expect from model police conduct, but qualified immunity ‘protect[s] officers from the sometimes hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.’”  Finally, the Court held “Griggs points to no authority establishing that it was unreasonable for an officer to use non-deadly punches to gain control of the arms of a drunken, actively resisting suspect.” As a result, the trial court did not error in granting Brewer’s summary judgment motion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The Panel includes Circuit Judges Jolly, Haynes, and Graves.  Jolly delivered the opinion of the court. Attorney listed for Griggs is Shelby Jean White.  Attorney listed for the Brewer is Jeffery Clay Hartsell.