Qualified immunity denied for officers accused of beating an unresisting subject to death after car stop


Ronald Greene was driving on U.S. Highway 80 in Monroe, Louisiana around 12 a.m. on May 10, 2019. Trooper Dakota DeMoss attempted to stop Mr. Greene for an unspecified violation. Mr. Greene sped away, and a pursuit ensued. He eventually crashed into a wooded area. Mr. Greene’s vehicle was only moderately damaged, and he was uninjured.

DeMoss and Master Trooper Chris Hollingsworth immediately arrived at the scene. Shortly after, Captain John Peters, Lieutenant John Clary, Sergeant Floyd McElroy, Master Trooper Kory York, and Deputy Sheriff Christopher Harpin joined as well. Mr. Greene exited his vehicle without assistance and began to apologize to the officers, but they pinned him to the ground.

Mr. Greene begged the officers to stop, continuing to apologize repeatedly. Although Mr. Greene had surrendered, showed no resistance, and posed no threat, each of the seven officers then “beat, smothered, and choked” Mr. Greene. The officers also tased him at least three times, although it is unclear who used the weapon because the Louisiana State Police has not produced the body–camera or dashboard– camera footage or other relevant records.

The alleged attack left Mr. Greene beaten, bloodied, and in cardiac arrest. At 12:29 a.m., an officer called for an ambulance. When it arrived at 12:51 a.m., Mr. Greene was covered in blood with multiple taser barbs attached to his body. The paramedics transported Mr. Greene to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The hospital listed his cause of death as cardiac arrest, and he was also diagnosed with an unspecified head injury. An autopsy later revealed multiple signs of recent trauma, including blunt-force injuries to the head and face, together with facial lacerations, abrasions, and contusions.

Plaintiff Tayla Greene filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the seven officers involved in the stop, asserting claims of excessive force and bystander liability. Five officers—DeMoss, York, McElroy, Clary, and Peters (the “officers”)—moved to dismiss on qualified immunity and inadequate pleading grounds.

The district court denied the officers’ motions. First, on the §1983 excessive force claims, the court concluded that qualified immunity is inappropriate because every reasonable officer would have known that he could not beat, smother, and choke an unresisting suspect who was subdued and posing no threat. Second, on the § 1983 bystander liability claims, the court similarly denied qualified immunity because every reasonable officer would have understood that he could not stand by while other officers engaged in excessive force. The 5th affirmed.


A. Excessive Force

Excessive force claims arising from an arrest or investigatory stop invoke the protection provided by the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable seizure. Plaintiffs must show (1) an injury, (2) which resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable. See Griggs. Reasonableness requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests’ against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.

It is long established in this circuit that officers engage in excessive force when they physically strike a suspect who is not resisting arrest. See Bartlett.

As to qualified immunity, the officers do not contest that the law prohibiting their alleged excessive force was clearly established. The officers instead urge that Ms. Greene did not plead her excessive force claims with sufficient specificity under Rule 8. All their arguments fall short.

First, they contend that Ms. Greene made only copy and paste allegations in her amended complaint. But the officers do not cite authority suggesting that identical, individual allegations are inherently improper. To the contrary, identical allegations do not necessarily defeat an otherwise sufficient pleading.

Second, the officers argue that it is “implausible” or “inconceivable” that they acted identically. This mistakes the proper inquiry under Iqbal; to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff need only plead sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. In other words, we evaluate the plausibility of claims. The officers ask us to do the opposite. They contend that Ms. Greene’s allegations are not credible because identical actions are factually unlikely, but we lack jurisdiction to entertain their argument.

Third, the officers argue that Ms. Greene’s allegations amount to an improper formulaic recitation of the elements of excessive force. But Ms. Greene substantiates her claims. The Amended Complaint alleges that each officer “beat, smothered, and choked” Mr. Greene after he was pinned down on the ground begging the officers to stop, and repeatedly saying “I’m sorry.” The beating left Mr. Greene “unresponsive,” “covered in blood,” and “in cardiac and respiratory arrest.”

An autopsy also found multiple signs of recent trauma, blunt force injuries to the head and face, facial lacerations, facial abrasions, facial contusions, scalp lacerations, blunt force injuries to the extremities, and abrasions and contusions over the left and right knees. Ms. Greene’s allegations do not formulaically recite the injury, causation, and unreasonableness requirements of an excessive force claim. She provides sufficient factual detail to put the officers on notice of their alleged wrongdoing.

Finally, the officers argue that the district court failed to evaluate qualified immunity separately for each officer. When officers’ actions are materially indistinguishable, however, we require only separate consideration, not separate analysis. See Ermel. The district court properly considered each officer’s actions.

B. Bystander Liability

An officer who is present at the scene and does not take reasonable measures to protect a suspect from another officer’s use of excessive force may be liable under § 1983. The elements of a successful bystander liability claim require that an officer (1) knew a fellow officer was violating an individual’s constitutional rights, (2) was present at the scene of the constitutional violation, (3) had a reasonable opportunity to prevent the harm but nevertheless, (4) chose not to act. See Bartlett. Bystander liability requires more than mere presence in the vicinity of the violation; courts also consider whether an officer “acquiesced in” the alleged constitutional violation.

The officers argue that qualified immunity applies because they did not have notice that failing to intervene while a fellow officer engages in excessive force is unconstitutional. That is not so. In May 2019 the law was clearly established that an officer can be liable as a bystander in a case involving excessive force if he knew a constitutional violation was taking place and had a reasonable opportunity to prevent the harm. See Hamilton.

Based on the alleged facts that we must take as true, we conclude that any reasonable officer would have known that his failure to intervene over a period of almost thirty minutes or more while his fellow officers beat an unresisting suspect offends the Constitution.

Drawing all inferences in Ms. Greene’s favor, we also conclude that she pleaded enough factual content to state a plausible bystander liability claim against each officer. Under the first element, all likely knew that a fellow officer was violating Mr. Greene’s constitutional rights. Indeed, with each officer’s personal participation in the excessive force, it is reasonable to infer that they each knew about the others’ unconstitutional conduct. Second, Ms. Greene pleaded that each officer was present at the scene of the beating. Third, because the beating occurred over an alleged span of twenty- nine to fifty-one minutes, it is also reasonable to infer that each officer had an opportunity to intervene during that window. Fourth, Ms. Greene alleges that each officer “watched” as the other officers used excessive force, again reasonably permitting an inference that they chose not to act.