Law School Case Brief
Abraham v. Raso - 183 F.3d 279 (3d Cir. 1999)
Excessive force in the course of an arrest is properly analyzed under U.S. Const. amend IV, not under substantive due process. U.S. Const. amend. IV provides that the right of the people to be secure in their persons against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated. To state a claim for excessive force as an unreasonable seizure under a plaintiff must show that a "seizure" occurred and that it was unreasonable. A suspect is obviously "seized" when shot. There can be no question that apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of U.S. Const. amend. IV. The pivotal question is when the use of deadly force is reasonable.
Kimberly Raso, an off-duty police officer, shot and killed Robert Abraham in a mall parking lot while Abraham was trying to escape from a department store where he had been stealing clothes. Raso was working as a mall security guard at the time and testified that she fired at Abraham because he tried to hit her with his car after she blocked its path. Abraham's Estate alleges that Raso used excessive force. According to the estate, Raso was not in front of the vehicle, her life was never in danger, and she fired simply to prevent Abraham from evading arrest. The Estate points to physical evidence showing the bullet shattered the driver's side window, rather than the front windshield, and struck Abraham in his left arm before passing into his chest. Vanessa Abraham filed this suit as administratrix of Robert Abraham's estate, in her own right, and on behalf of Robert Abraham's three children. The Estate sought relief against Raso and the Township of Cherry Hill under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on violations of Robert Abraham's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. The complaint also included pendent state claims against Raso, the owners of the Cherry Hill mall that employed Raso, and the department store where Abraham had stolen the clothes.
Raso and her husband in turn brought negligence claims against the department store, Abraham's Estate, and Vanessa Abraham in her individual capacity and as administratrix. Raso also sued her own auto insurer, CNA Insurance Co., invoking an uninsured motorist provision in her policy. CNA then sued Liberty Mutual, the insurer for one of the mall defendants.
The District Court held on summary judgment that regardless of whether Raso's use of deadly force was justifiable in self-defense, Abraham posed an immediate threat of physical harm to the public, making the shooting objectively reasonable. Based on this "core" holding, the District Court dismissed all the parties' claims, except for the few remaining claims not subject to a summary judgment motion, i.e., Raso's tort claims against Abraham's estate and Vanessa Abraham.
Did the district court err in holding that regardless of whether Raso's use of deadly force was justifiable in self-defense, Abraham posed an immediate threat of physical harm to the public, making the shooting objectively reasonable?
The reviewing court found that it was error to hold that regardless of whether Raso's use of deadly force was justifiable in self-defense, Abraham posed an immediate threat of physical harm to the public, making the shooting objectively reasonable. It was therefore error to dismiss all the parties' claims, except for the few remaining claims not subject to a summary judgment motion. The physical evidence together with inconsistencies in Raso’s testimony raised credibility determinations, which could not be made on summary judgment. There was no merit in Raso’s claims against the department store, however, and summary judgment was affirmed for all claims against the department store. Because the district court's analysis of other claims was premised on the determination that the officer's use of force was objectively reasonable, the court vacated summary judgment on the other claims.
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