In Cunningham v. Shelby County, Tennessee (6th Cir. 2021) 994 F.3d 761, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted the important benefits officers enjoy from body worn and dashboard cameras in granting two deputies qualified immunity. The appellate court reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment noting that courts do not have to view the disputed facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff when the plaintiff’s allegations are “blatantly contradicted” by the video footage.  Instead, the court must view the facts in the light depicted by the videotape.  The court also held the consideration of still frame footage after-the-fact violated the Constitutional prohibitions against hindsight review set forth in Graham v. Connor.   Lastly, the court held the deputies were not required to wait until the outstretched gun was pointed directly at them.

In Cunningham, three deputies responded to a 911 caller who told the dispatcher “she was depressed and suicidal, that she had a gun, and that she would kill anyone who came to her residence.”  After the deputies arrived, the caller walked out her front door with something in her right hand, which was later determined to be a BB handgun but resembled a .45 caliber pistol. The video recorded by the dashboard camera shows that she began walking towards the driveway and, as she proceeded, began to raise the handgun.  One deputy yelled out to her and a deputy fired one round.  She continued walking with her arm extended horizontally with her pistol pointed towards her car.  The second deputy then fired.  She reached the car, leaned on the hood and turned towards the house.  The firing continued as she took a few steps and collapsed.

The parties disputed whether the video showed her starting to turn towards the deputies.  Ten shots were fired, eight struck the subject.  Although not visible to the deputies, nor the normal speed video, she deposited the gun on the hood before turning.

In analyzing qualified immunity, the court considered whether the law “clearly established” that the lethal force used here violated a Fourth Amendment right “of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The trial court denied qualified immunity based published cases that involved factual disputes over whether the subjects had pointed a weapon or used one in a threatening manner. Those cases involved factual disputes based on witness testimony and forensic experts—not video footage.  Significantly, the appellate court explained that because the events in this case are recorded on video, the facts are viewed in the video’s light, not in a light favorable to the plaintiff (the usual standard for summary judgment). 

The appellate court explained that because of the existence of video footage, “there is no dispute about how the shooting …unfolded. Our task is to determine whether the videotapes portray a constitutional violation of the kind that a reasonable deputy should have understood.”  Noting the threatening nature of the call, the court credited the deputies’ perception that the subject was turning with the gun and posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury, and noted its consistency with the video.

Notably, the appellate court was “troubled by the district court’s use of ‘screen shots’ to analyze the dashcam videos.”  The court held such reliance violates “the teaching of Graham against judging the reasonableness of a particular use of force based upon 20/20 hindsight.”  The trial court pinpointed moments to establish what occurred, but conceded the moments to not tell the full story in light of how quickly it occurred.  The appellate court forcefully concluded, “[t]he deputies’ perspective did not include leisurely stop-action viewing of the real-time situation that they encountered. To rest a finding of reasonableness on a luxury that they did not enjoy is unsupported by any clearly established law and would constitute reversible error.”

This case exemplifies both the significant benefits to both the public and officers from body worn and/or dashboard cameras. Moreover, the error of the trial court provides a stark reminder that still frame, slow motion, and enhanced video footage often do not accurately reflect what an officer can reasonably perceive and process in a split-second while lives hang in the balance.