Qualified immunity for Lowndes County S.O. when subject drives directly toward a colleague


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On April 1, 2020, a detective from the Lowndes County Sherriff’s Office saw a vehicle that failed to observe a stop sign. The vehicle had been reported stolen earlier that day, and the detective recognized the vehicle’s driver as Austin Hines. The detective turned on his lights, but Austin kept driving, and a chase ensued. The pursuit lasted about 20 minutes, during which Austin:

•led police through populated areas;
• drove through yards and ditches;
• ran civilians and police officers off the road;
• swerved into the left lane of traffic, including through blind curves and over hills;
• ignored multiple stop signs;
• hit several civilian vehicles, including an 18-wheeler;
• collided with a law enforcement vehicle; and
• reached speeds of over 90 mph.

Austin eventually lost control of the vehicle, wrecked it, and abandoned it. He continued on foot and soon encountered another detective. That detective fired a single shot at Austin after seeing something in his hand, but Austin escaped. The detective’s shot is not at issue here. After firing it, the detective called over the radio: “Shots fired. Shots fired. He’s got a gun.”

Deputy Thomas Culpepper and Deputy Thomas Honnoll were on foot in a nearby clearing, and they each heard the detective’s gunshot and his radio call. The Deputies and other officers began searching the clearing, but they could not locate Austin. Their body cameras captured what happened next. A police truck came careening through from the right side of the clearing, traveling in front of the Deputies and perpendicular to a pair of railroad tracks to their left.

The Deputies ignored the truck at first, but then they saw Austin behind the wheel, and they realized he had stolen it. As the two Deputies gave chase on foot, Austin sped past a constable, only narrowly avoiding running him over. When Austin arrived at the railroad tracks, he turned left. That decision brought him back toward the general area of the clearing, but it also put him on a path directly toward Captain Higgins, who was on the tracks as part of the search.

Seeing that Austin had aimed the stolen police truck right towards Captain Higgins, Deputy Culpepper opened fire at the truck. Deputy Honnoll opened fire too, for the same reason. In total, they fired about 18 shots. The stolen truck came to a stop a few feet from Captain Higgins, and the officers called a ceasefire. Austin suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died as a result.

Austin’s father sued Deputy Culpepper and Deputy Honnoll in state court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they violated Austin’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. Hines also asserted state-law claims against both Deputies, sued additional defendants, and relied on additional causes of action that are not relevant here. The Deputies removed the case to federal court.

The Deputies moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court agreed, first concluding that Honnoll’s and Culpepper’s use of force was reasonable, because when they opened fire, they had reason to believe Austin posed a serious threat to at least one officer. The district court next concluded—in the alternative—that even had the facts alleged amounted to a constitutional violation, Hines cannot show Honnoll or Culpepper violated a clearly established constitutional right. The court reasoned that Austin was driving in the direction towards at least one other officer, and that Hines had failed to identify any clearly established law that would place beyond doubt the constitutional question in this case, whether it is unreasonable for an officer to use deadly force when he observes a fleeing vehicle driving towards a fellow officer. The district court granted summary judgment for the Deputies on Hines’s § 1983 claim, and it remanded Hines’s state-law claims to state court. The 5th affirmed.


Qualified immunity shields state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. See SCOTUS Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731 (2011). When either prong is conclusive, a court need not address the other. See SCOTUS Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009).

Under the second prong, the burden here is heavy: A right is clearly established only if precedent has placed the constitutional question beyond debate. See Harmon. The specificity requirement assumes special significance in excessive force cases, where officers must make split-second decisions to use force. To overcome qualified immunity, the law must be so clearly established that every reasonable officer would have known he could not use deadly force.

Under the qualified-immunity test’s second prong, the district court defined the particular conduct at issue as: “whether it is unreasonable for an officer to use deadly force when he observes a fleeing vehicle driving towards a fellow officer.” Hines does not dispute this framing on appeal, nor does he offer any alternative statement of the specific conduct at issue. Indeed, he mentions the “clearly established” prong only once, on the penultimate page of his opening brief.

Hines makes a cursory attempt to identify clearly established law that prohibits the specific conduct at issue, but he relies on only a single decision from this court: Lytle. There, we held that it has long been clearly established that, absent any other justification for the use of force, it is unreasonable for a police officer to use deadly force against a fleeing felon who does not pose a sufficient threat of harm to the officer or others. But Lytle is not analogous to this case. The Deputies knew that Austin was driving a vehicle toward Captain Higgins when they opened fire. Lytle did not clearly establish anything about what is reasonable when a suspect in a large truck drives directly toward an officer who is on foot. Because Hines has not shown that the Deputies’ unlawful actions (if any) violated Austin’s clearly established rights, we need not (and do not) address the test’s first prong.

Hines’s arguments cannot overcome this conclusion. To begin, he cites a number of out-of-circuit cases in which courts have found police officers’ shooting of fleeing motorists to be unreasonable. But, like Lytle, these cases are not on point, because none of them involves a fleeing suspect who was accelerating toward someone when the officer fired. See, e.g., Adams v. Speers, 473 F.3d 989 (9th Cir. 2007) (officer fired shots from in front of the suspect’s vehicle as it rolled backwards away from him); Smith v. Cupp, 430 F.3d 766 (6th Cir. 2005) (autopsy showed that officer had fired only after the suspect passed him). Hines can prevail only if he identifies authority placing Austin’s rights beyond debate. And he has failed to meet this burden.

Hines next argues that a fact question remains as to whether the stolen police truck posed a threat to Captain Higgins. But the Deputies’ body- camera footage shows Austin driving the stolen truck right at the Captain. Even if Austin’s angle of approach was sometimes off by a few degrees, or if the Captain might have had time to take refuge on the opposite side of the tracks, he was still in immediate danger when the Deputies opened fire to save him. See Hathaway (officer was justified in using deadly force against a car that was accelerating toward him).

Finally, Hines uses the bulk of his brief to build an argument that asks us to look at things from Austin’s perspective (rather than the Deputies’ perspective). Hines says that when Austin ignored the first stop sign, the vehicle he was driving was merely borrowed (even though it had been reported stolen). When Austin took off on foot and encountered the second detective, Austin did not have a gun, let alone shoot (even though a radio call then proclaimed “Shots fired. He’s got a gun.”). When Austin drove through the clearing—almost hitting several officers, and then toward another—he was just trying to get back to his girlfriend (even though the officers on the scene could not have appreciated this). And when Austin drove toward Captain Higgins, he was trying to run—not fight (even though he had earlier collided with a police vehicle). Even if Hines is right about all of that, the legal outcome is still the same. That is because excessive force claims are evaluated for objective reasonableness based on the information the officers had when the conduct occurred.

Hines has identified no law—much less clearly established law— holding that the Fourth Amendment prohibits officers from using deadly force against a suspect driving directly toward one of their colleagues during his attempt to escape. Accordingly, we AFFIRM.