MICHAEL SAUERS, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Carola R. Sauers, deceased
BOROUGH OF NESQUEHONING; CHIEF OF POLICE SEAN SMITH; OFFICER STEPHEN HOMANKO Officer Stephen Homanko, Appellant
June 4, 2018
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle
District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 3-16-cv-00811) District
Judge: Hon. James M. Munley
M. Autry [ARGUED] Frank J. Lavery, Jr. Lavery Faherty
Patterson Counsel for Appellant
Michael B. Kaspszyk [ARGUED] Merwine Hanyon & Kaspszyk
Counsel for Appellee
Before: AMBRO, JORDAN, and VANASKIE, Circuit Judges.
JORDAN, Circuit Judge.
case arises out of a tragic car accident that injured Michael
Sauers and killed his wife. The crash resulted from the
criminally reckless driving of police officer Stephen
Homanko. Sauers later brought this suit against Homanko and
others pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law for,
among other things, violating his and his wife's
Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. Homanko
moved to dismiss the § 1983 claim for failure to state a
claim and, in the alternative, he sought qualified immunity.
The District Court denied the motion and Homanko appealed.
Because we conclude that it was not clearly established at
the time of the crash that Homanko's conduct, as alleged
in the complaint, could give rise to constitutional liability
under the Fourteenth Amendment, we will vacate the District
Court's denial of qualified immunity. We hope, however,
to establish the law clearly now.
12, 2014, Sauers and his wife were driving southbound on
Route 209 in the Borough of Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania. At
the same time, Homanko was on patrol on Route 209 and
traveling in the same direction when he observed the driver
of a yellow Dodge Neon commit a summary traffic offense in
the northbound lane. Based on that observation alone, he
turned around and began to pursue the Dodge. At some point he
took the time to radio ahead to the police in the neighboring
borough to request that officers there pull the Dodge over
when it reached their jurisdiction.
then decided that catching the Dodge himself was important
enough to warrant a chase at speeds of over 100
miles-per-hour. Several members of the public observed him
driving recklessly. During the pursuit, Homanko lost control
of his police car while going around a curve. His car began
to spin, crossed the center line into southbound traffic, and
crashed into Sauers's car. The accident seriously injured
Sauers and killed his wife. Homanko was subsequently charged
and pled guilty to vehicular homicide, which requires proof
beyond a reasonable doubt of reckless or grossly negligent
driving, and reckless endangerment.
criminal case was not the end of Homanko's legal trouble.
Sauers - individually and as the administrator of his
wife's estate - initiated the present lawsuit against
him, setting forth federal and state law causes of action,
including a claim under § 1983. Sauers premised his §
1983 claim on a "state-created danger" theory of
liability. Homanko moved to dismiss only that claim. He
argued that the complaint did not plausibly allege a
state-created danger claim and, in the alternative, that he
was entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly
established in May 2014 that negligent or reckless police
driving could give rise to a constitutional cause of action.
The District Court denied Homanko's motion as to both
liability and qualified immunity.
liability, the Court determined that the complaint adequately
pled a state-created danger claim, a determination that
Homanko does not now appeal. The Court further concluded that
the law was clearly established in May 2014 that "any
reasonable officer would have known that pursuing a potential
traffic offender in excess of 100 miles-per-hour under the
circumstances [alleged in the complaint] gives rise to a
state-created danger claim." (App. at 21.) That
determination is the subject of this appeal.
immunity protects government officials from civil damages for
conduct that "does not violate clearly established
statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable
person would have known." Pearson v. Callahan,
555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (citation omitted). Thus, courts
assessing a claim of qualified immunity must answer two
questions. One is whether the defendant's conduct
violated a statutory or constitutional right. The other is
whether the right at issue was clearly established when the
conduct took place. We have discretion to address either
inquiry first. Id. at 236.
recent decisions addressing qualified immunity, the Supreme
Court has "repeatedly told courts … not to define
clearly established law at a high level of generality."
Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2018)
(citation omitted). The question in this case therefore
cannot be framed simply in terms of recklessness generally.
Homanko's request for qualified immunity must be assessed
within the context of the case law that has developed from
accidents caused by high-speed police pursuits that injure
Sauers's Complaint Pleads a Plausible
State-Created Danger Claim.
has not appealed the District Court's determination that
the complaint adequately describes a constitutional
violation, and for good reason. The pleadings describe a
police officer driving at speeds over 100 miles-per-hour on a
two-way, undivided road to catch someone who had committed a
minor traffic infraction. There was no emergency at all, and
Homanko likely did the most that was warranted when he
radioed the police in a neighboring jurisdiction to stop the
offender. His hyper-aggressive decision to chase the Dodge
cannot be justified. Nonetheless, to determine whether his
conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right,
we must take the time to define that right and explain why
the conduct violated it.
a right at the appropriate level of specificity is often the
most critical aspect of a qualified immunity analysis. In
undertaking that task, we are guided by the Supreme
Court's repeated instructions to do so in light of the
particular facts of the case at hand. See Kisela,
138 S.Ct. at 1152; White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548,
552 (2017); Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308
(2015). We accordingly define the right at issue here as one
not to be injured or killed as a result of a police
officer's reckless pursuit of an individual suspected of
a summary traffic offense when there is no pending emergency
and when the suspect is not actively fleeing the police.
earlier noted, Sauers's complaint relies on the
state-created danger theory of liability to establish his
right to be free from what Homanko did. That doctrine
embodies the principle that the government has an obligation
under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause
"to protect individuals against dangers that the
government itself creates." Haberle v. Troxell,
885 F.3d 170, 176 (3d Cir. 2018). Establishing a claim under
that doctrine requires a plaintiff to plead four elements:
(1) [t]he harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly
(2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that
shocks the conscience;
(3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff
existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of
the defendant's acts, or a member of a discrete class of
persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the
state's actions, as opposed to a member of the public in
(4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in
a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered
the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not
acted at all.
Id. at 176-77 (citation omitted). It is clear, we
think, that the complaint adequately alleges elements one,
three, and four. Whether Homanko's alleged conduct shocks
the conscience is a closer call.
level of culpability required "to shock the contemporary
conscience" falls along a spectrum dictated by the
circumstances of each case. County of Sacramento v.
Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847-49 & n.8 (1998). Our case
law establishes three distinct categories of culpability
depending on how much time a police officer has to make a
decision. Haberle, 885 F.3d at 177. In one category
are actions taken in a "hyperpressurized
environment[.]" Id. (citation omitted). They
will not be held to shock the conscience unless the officer
has "an intent to cause harm." Id.
(citation omitted). Next are actions taken within a time
frame that allows an officer to engage in "hurried
deliberation." Id. (citation omitted). When
those actions "reveal a conscious disregard of a great
risk of serious harm" they will be sufficient to shock
the conscience. Id. (quotation marks and citation
omitted). Finally, actions undertaken with "unhurried
judgments," with time for "careful
deliberation," will be held to shock the conscience if
they are "done with deliberate indifference."
Id. (citation omitted). Our case law is clear that
this "shocks the conscience" framework for analysis
applies to police-pursuit cases. Brown v. Pa. Dep't
of Health & Emergency Med. Servs. Training Inst.,
318 F.3d 473, 480 (3d Cir. 2003); cf. Kedra v.
Schroeter, 876 F.3d 424, 432, 448 (3d Cir. 2017)
(relying on pre-2014 case law to conclude that the
state-created danger doctrine was a clearly established
theory of liability in September 2014).
District Court rightly interpreted the complaint to allege
that Homanko "had at least some time to deliberate"
before deciding whether and how to pursue the traffic
offender. (App. at 16.) That places the fact-pattern in the
second category of culpability, requiring inferences or
allegations of a conscious disregard of a great risk of
serious harm. That conclusion is supported by the allegation
that Homanko, at some point, had time to call the neighboring
police department as he was contemplating his actions. It is
further supported by an obvious inference from the nature of
the Dodge driver's mild provocation: there was no
emergency arising from a simple traffic violation. The
liability question thus becomes whether deciding to pursue a
potential summary traffic offender at speeds of over 100
miles-per-hour, after ...