Federal lawsuit alleging excessive force, illegal search by Huntsville police officers moves forward

By Brian Lawson | blawson@al.com 

February 05, 2013 at 12:48 PM

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — A federal appeals court Friday rejected claims by two Huntsville Police Department officers that they were entitled to immunity in a unlawful search and excessive force lawsuit.

The case stems from a Feb. 6, 2008, traffic stop near Oakwood Avenue and Rideout Road after the driver was reported speeding and delayed stopping for police.

The female passenger in the car, Silvadnie Quainoo, alleges she was searched and arrested without cause and a female officer put her hand down the Quainoo’s pants during the search.

The officer, Jennifer Watkins, denies the allegation and in court filings contends a patrol car camera and a third-party witness support her version of events.

The lawsuit also alleges Quainoo was placed in handcuffs and while she was surrounded by three police officers, Watkins directed a male officer to pepper spray her.

Quainoo was sprayed two times by officer Hunter Aldridge, according to court records.

In denying the officers’ motions for summary judgment the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the order from U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon from December 2011. The appeals court said Kallon’s denial of summary judgment was “well-reasoned and thorough.”

Kallon dismissed all claims against the City of Huntsville in the same 2011 order.

The officers’ have argued in court filings that the car Quainoo was riding in failed to stop initially when Watkins turned on her siren. The officers’ filings contend they were concerned that the delay in stopping may have given the car’s occupants time to hide a weapon.

Quainoo was wearing a baggy jacket with numerous pockets, the officers said, requiring the pat-down. She was not cooperative, the defendants say, drummed her hands on the vehicle and began moving back toward the officers with her elbows high.

Quainoo contends that she only turned her head to ask the officers, more than once, why she was being searched since she hadn’t done anything.

Watkins reportedly decided to handcuff Quainoo because she kept turning back and yelling, the police contend. Watkins and another male officer struggled to handcuff her, they said, and Aldridge walked over to her.

Quainoo was reportedly warned she would be pepper-sprayed if she kept resisting, the officers contend, but she kept moving her elbows and failing to comply, so Aldridge sprayed her twice.

Quainoo argues it was excessive force to pepper-spray a woman who was handcuffed and surrounded by three officers. Attorneys for the officers argue that they are entitled to immunity from being sued as government employees performing their duties and as state employees performing discretionary acts in the line of duty.

The officers filing with the 11th Circuit notes that patrol car camera footage also supports their version of events concerning Quianoo’s behavior.

Watkins is the only officer at whom the false arrest charge is directed. Judge Kallon ruled in December 2011 that because the facts are in dispute, neither Quainoo, who denied obstructing the officer, nor Watkins, was entitled to summary judgment.

The judge found that Watkins frisking of Quainoo in search for possible weapons was reasonable under the circumstances, but also said that search would not be reasonable if the officer stuck her hand inside the plaintiff’s pants, as alleged. No weapon was found on Quainoo, according to court records.

The court again said the factual dispute over how the search was conducted would need to be decided by a jury and declined to grant summary judgment for either side.

On the excessive force issue, Aldridge is named but Watkins is also cited because she reportedly gave the order to Aldridge to spray Quainoo.

The court pointed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ standard of review on use of force: the need for the application of force; the relationship between the need and the amount of force used; the extent of the injury inflicted, and whether the force was applied in good faith or maliciously and sadistically.

The officers appeal brief says the use of force was not excessive because it was “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances and that Quainoo did not establish in her filings how the pepper-spraying violated “clearly established law.”

Quainoo alleges she was not resisting when handcuffed and surrounded by the three officers. The district court found that if the plaintiff’s allegations are true – which would be up to a jury to decide – “the facts establish a violation of a well-established constitutional right to be free from excessive force,” and denied the defendants’ summary judgment request.

The officers also sought summary judgment on the grounds that as state agents they were immune from lawsuits governing discretionary actions, but again the court found because the facts of the case are in dispute, summary judgment should be denied.

The plaintiff’s original complaint notes that she took the matter to the Huntsville Police Department which reviewed her complaint and found no wrongdoing.

The lawsuit also claims that the obstructing governmental operations charge that Quainoo was arrested for was dropped after the officers did not “show up for court.”

Quainoo’s Florence-based attorney, Henry Sherrod, said with the appeals court ruling, the case goes back to Judge Kallon. Sherrod said he assumes the case will be set for trial in the coming months.

Federal lawsuit alleging excessive force, illegal search by Huntsville police officers moves forward

About Aaron Law Firm

Aaron Law Firm handles criminal cases in city, state and federal courts in the state of Alabama. If you are accused of a crime it has to be taken seriously, even accusation of a crime can have serious effect on many different areas of your life. If it is a DUI or something more serious it has to be taken as a threat to your freedom. After you have been accused of a crime, you should always consult a lawyer before talking to the authorities . Seek immediate legal counsel and make sure your rights are protected.

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