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Eighth Circuit Reverses Excessive Force Summary Judgment

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that factual disputes about what happened outside a camera's view during an arrest precluded summary judgment for police on an excessive force claim.

At 2:30 a.m., on February 12, 2009, Arkansas State Police (ASP) Trooper Brad Cartwright witnessed a man he later identified as Gabriel Coker, speeding down a highway at 102 miles per hour (MPH) on a motorcycle.

Cartwright activated his lights and siren and pursued Coker for three minutes at speeds exceeding 150 mph. When Coker slowed, Cartwright bumped the bike with his patrol vehicle, knocking it over and sending Coker tumbling. Until then, Cartwright's dash camera caught all the action. Coker got up and ran outside the camera's view.

Coker claims that he complied with Cartwright's commands and immediately fell to the ground, waiting to be handcuffed. Nevertheless, Cartwright kicked him in the face, slammed his head into the ground and struck him in the face with a metal Maglight flashlight, breaking the bones in his cheek, Coker claimed. While handcuffed and returning to the patrol car, Cartwright threw an elbow into his broken cheek bones, according to Coker.

Cartwright claimed that he used only the force necessary to make the arrest, as Coker assumed a fighting stance and refused his orders to get on the ground. Nevertheless, Cartwright admitted that he kicked Coker in the face, knocked him to the ground, and hit him in the side of the face to subdue him while trying to handcuff him. Importantly, Cartwright admitted that it is "very possible that the flashlight struck" Coker, who was treated at a hospital for broken cheek bones.

Coker brought federal suit against ASP and Cartwright, alleging excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted Defendants summary judgment.

The Eighth Circuit reversed, concluding that it could not say as a matter of law that Cartwright's use of force once outside the view of the dash camera was objectively reasonable. "A reasonable jury could find that the severity of Coker's injuries demonstrates excessive force, particularly Cartwright's decision to strike Coker using a metal flashlight after Coker was already on the ground and allegedly complying with Cartwright's demands," the court held.

Since it was impossible to determine what happened outside the camera's view, and the court cannot make credibility determinations or weigh evidence on summary judgment, the court reversed, "leaving it to a jury to decide whose story is more plausible." See: Coker v. Cartwright, 734 F.3d 838 (8th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, the case settled for $20,000 in March 2015.

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Related legal case

Coker v. Cartwright