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A Clearwater police officer who pulled a woman from her car, resulting in significant injury, after she refused to allow him to search wasn't acting outside clearly established law, the Eleventh Circuit has ruled. The decision overturns a district court ruling that the officer used excessive force and was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The incident began when Officer Jeffery Adkisson, of Clearwater, Florida, pulled Sarita Merricks over after he suspected her car's windows were illegally tinted. He claimed to have smelled marijuana smoke, though Merricks denied that she or anyone else in the car had smoked. When Adkisson asked if he could search, Merricks repeatedly refused.
What Are You Going to Do to Stop Me?
That refusal didn't stop Adkisson, who reached in through her window and attempted to open her door and turn off her car. Merricks held the keys in the ignition and repeated that Adkisson couldn't search her car, causing the officer to ask "what she was going to do to stop him." Not much apparently -- he soon dragged her from the car by her wrist. When officers searched the car and Merricks, they could find no drugs, but the incident left her with a torn rotator cuff that required surgery to repair.
After Merricks sued, Adkisson argued that he had qualified immunity, as a police officer operating in his discretionary authority, with probably cause and violating no clearly established rights. The district court disagreed, finding Adkisson's use of force to be excessive and noting no immediate threat of danger or attempts by Merricks to resist or flee.
Saying No to a Request is Resisting
That decision, the Eleventh Circuit noted, didn't cite any case law to show that Adkisson violated a clearly established law. In a 1983 suit, officers lose their qualified immunity only if their actions violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Adkisson's use of force -- which involved no hitting, no pepper spraying, no tazing -- wasn't so excessive as to be widely recognized as illegal, the Eleventh ruled. The court also repeatedly highlighted that the stop occurred in a "violent, high crime, and high-drug neighborhood" so as to further explain or excuse the officer's force.
The court differentiated Merrick's case from other examples of excessive force. In other cases where excessive force has been found, officers were needlessly aggressive against individuals who were cooperating and not resisting. However, according to the Eleventh, Merricks "resisted." How? She said no to a search, then refused to turn her car off. To the Eleventh, that resistance made the officer's force reasonable.