Issue Watch: Hadsell Stormer Defeats Summary Judgment in Dangerous Traffic Stop Case

On Friday, August 18, Judge Birotte issued an order denying summary judgment to Defendant City of Beverly Hills in a case challenging the use of high risk tactics at stops of potentially stolen vehicles. This is a significant victory for the plaintiff, represented by Morgan Ricketts, a partner at Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai.

Ms. Ricketts brought this case on behalf of a young professional woman with no criminal history, whose plates had been stolen and replaced with others, without her knowledge. One day she found herself being pulled over by police and treated as though she were a dangerous and violent criminal, with three guns pointed directly at her while she tried her best to remain calm, fearful that if she made a single wrong move, the officers would kill her in the street. She experienced serious and lasting emotional trauma from the incident.

Ninth Circuit caselaw makes clear that a stolen vehicle alone does not mean the occupant presents a danger to police. Green v. City and County of San Francisco , 751 F. 3d 1039 (9th Cir. 2014). But this police department customarily treats the majority of potentially stolen vehicles – even those that cooperate with police instructions to pull over – as though the occupants were terrorists. Note – not all potentially stolen vehicles are approached with high risk tactics. Some are approached like an ordinary traffic stop. But regardless of the tactics used, these stops are extraordinarily safe for police officers. In the five years leading up to the stop, exactly zero officers were injured during any kind of traffic stop. Out of 75,000 traffic stops of all kinds conducted in that time, only one person even attempted to assault an officer (they were unsuccessful). And don’t forget, a mentally ill person spitting on an officer or pushing back at an officer arresting them is an assault. So the term covers a lot of conduct that may or may not endanger an officer. And we all know that the majority of traffic stops do not involve these high risk tactics; just an officer coming to ask us for our license, insurance, and registration. In other words, plenty of people stopped have the opportunity to resist or try to fight with an officer, and yet none do.

So if zero out of 75,000 traffic stops resulted in injury to an officer, what’s the rationale for taking some subset of those stops and considering them “high risk”?

There is none, or at least not a reasonable, constitutionally sound rationale. That’s exactly what Ms. Ricketts and Hadsell Stormer argued in their Opposition to the Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. The Defendants sought to have the Court rule that:

  1. there had been no excessive force because the officers were trained to use these tactics and officers had heard that these types of stops are dangerous; and
  2. even if there was a constitutional violation, it was not clearly established by existing caselaw at the time and therefore the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court cogently explained that because there were important disputes of material facts, these matters were for a jury to decide, and ruled that the claims could all proceed to trial. Next step: trial prep!

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