In 2017, fifteen year old Jordan Edwards attended a party at a house in Balch Springs, Texas, with his two brothers and two friends. When police responded to a report of underage drinking, the boys headed for their car. As police were at the house, they heard gunshots and walked in that direction. Edwards was a passenger in their car as it moved into reverse. Officer Tyler Gross yelled for the car to stop but instead it started driving forward on Shepard Lane.
At this point, there is disagreement as to what happened next. Officer Roy Oliver argued that the driver accelerated toward Gross, whereas the plaintiffs claim that the vehicle was not close to Gross when it proceeded forward and that Gross was never in the path of the vehicle. Oliver fired five shots and one bullet struck Jordan in the head, killing him. Jordan’s father and brothers filed a §1983 against Oliver for excessive force. You can see the incident from the officer’s body cams below:
Oliver’s motion for summary judgement (MSJ) was dismissed at the district court level as he found there was a genuine dispute of material facts (was the car a threat to the officer) in this case. 5th affirms.
When a district court denies MSJ to an officer who invokes qualified immunity, the 5th on appeal is prohibited from reviewing the genuine issues of material facts as found by the district court judge. Instead, the 5th reviews on appeal whether any factual dispute found by the district court is material for summary judgement purposes. In other words, using the facts as found by the district court judge, is this a constitutional violation and/or is it clearly established that the officer’s actions are objectively unreasonable.
A. Constitutional violation
Oliver claimed the facts are not in dispute. For example, he said a window shattered near him that sounded like a gun making it reasonable to think it was a gunshot. However, this factual assertion by Oliver was not found by the district court judge. We don’t have jurisdiction to consider this argument.
Further, the extent of the car’s threat to Gross is the factual question at the heart of this case and it is a genuinely disputed question. The district court judge found that the body camera footage sufficiently raised a fact question about the car’s threat of harm to Gross because it was moving away from him. The resolution of this dispute is material because it affects whether Oliver’s use of force was reasonable.
B. Clearly established
Our precedent in Lytle holds that the use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect who poses insufficient harm to others violates clearly established law. However, Oliver points to a recent unpublished case from our court, Irwin, for the proposition that an officer’s position standing toward the front of a moving car precludes Lytle’s applicability for purposes of the clearly established prong. In other words, Oliver is saying he should get qualified immunity like officer Santiago did in the Irwin case.
In order to use Irwin and grant Oliver summary judgement on qualified immunity, the 5th would have to agree that Gross was “towards the front” of the moving car in this case. However, that is a factual dispute. Thus, the 5th did not dismiss this matter.
Hopefully, you didn’t get lost in all of that. Bottom line, this is a factual dispute as to what happened and it is not clearly established that Oliver should get qualified immunity based on case law.
As an aside, Oliver was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 15 years, which is on appeal for a potential Garrity issue. His conviction has no bearing on a §1983 claim because qualified immunity is not available in his murder trial. Finally, an unpublished opinion means the decision isn’t binding for precedent purposes.