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Barker v. Keezer

July 8, 2010

ANTHONY ROLLO BARKER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHRISTOPHER KEEZER, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court upon the motion for summary judgment of Defendant Detective Christopher Keezer ("Detective Keezer" or "Keezer") [Docket Item 57]. Defendant Keezer asks this Court to dismiss the claims of Plaintiff Rollo Anthony Barker ("Barker") on the grounds that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff Barker, proceeding without a lawyer, seeks relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Keezer employed excessive force in effectuating his arrest on April 13, 2006, thereby violating Barker's Fourth Amendment rights [Docket Item 1]. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will deny Defendant Keezer's motion for summary judgment.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On April 13, 2006, Barker led police on a high-speed chase through Roseland, Fairfield, Montville, and Pequannock, New Jersey, after the Roseland Police attempted to pull him over for speeding in a vehicle missing its front license plate. (Roseland Incident Report, Def. Exh. A.) Barker eventually abandoned his vehicle and proceeded to flee by foot, first into a wooded area adjacent to the highway and then into a residential neighborhood. (Montville Investigative Report, Def. Exh. E at 2.) While chasing Barker, Detective Keezer yelled for him to "stop" and identified himself as the police. (Id. at 3.) Keezer caught up to Barker and tackled him from behind, causing both men to fall to the pavement. (Id.)

It is at this point that the parties' accounts of the events diverge. In Keezer's version, Barker hit the ground face first and rolled over, flailing his arms and legs and swinging at Keezer. (Id.) Keezer claims that because of Barker's active resistance to arrest, he could initially handcuff only one of Barker's hands and was forced to subdue Barker by a single, closed-fist punch. (Id.) According to Barker, however, Detective Keezer "maliciously assaulted" him by "beating him about his head and body" and "slamming his face on the blacktop repeatedly" after handcuffing Barker behind his back.*fn1 (Pl.'s May 24, 2010 Aff.; Pl.'s Oct. 15, 2009 Opp'n at 7.) Following the arrest, Barker was brought to the hospital where he was treated for a fractured nose, head trauma, multiple facial contusions and abrasions, and two broken front teeth. (Medical Records, Pl.'s Oct. 15, 2009 Opp'n. Exh.)

On March 25, 2008, Barker filed a one-count complaint against Detective Keezer pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Keezer employed excessive force during the arrest, and in doing so violated Barker's Fourth Amendment rights [Docket Item 1]. On August 18, 2009, Keezer filed the present motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 57].

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when the materials of the record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable [fact-finder] could return a verdict for the non-moving party." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is considered "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Id. Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a finding of summary judgment. Id.

In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, a court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party; in other words, "the non-moving party's evidence 'is believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [that party's] favor.'" Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 447 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). In the context of qualified immunity cases, this will usually require a court to adopt the plaintiff's version of the facts. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007).

B. Qualified Immunity

In moving for summary judgment, Detective Keezer argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity from Barker's claims. As an "accommodation of competing values," the doctrine of qualified immunity strikes a balance by permitting a plaintiff to recover for constitutional violations where the defendant officer was "plainly incompetent or . knowingly violate[d] the law," while immunizing an officer who "made a reasonable mistake about the legal constraints on his actions." Curley v. Klem, 499 F.3d 199, 206-07 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The protection of qualified immunity, if appropriate, will apply regardless of "whether the government official's error is 'a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact.'" Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009) (quoting Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 567 (2004) (Kennedy, J., dissenting).

A defendant's entitlement to qualified immunity hinges on two considerations.*fn2 First, a court must determine "whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all," id. at 816 (citation omitted), which, as the Court of Appeals has emphasized, is not a question of immunity as such, "but is instead the underlying question of whether there is even a wrong to be addressed in an analysis of immunity." Curley, 499 F.3d at 207. A court must then decide "whether the right that was [allegedly] violated was clearly established, or, in other words, whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Id. (internal quotations and citations ...


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