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Wilson v. Koppel

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 12, 2018

DARNELL WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
TRENT KOPPEL, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the joint motion of Defendants Trent Koppel and Daniel Milberg for summary judgment (ECF No. 74). For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be denied as to Daniel Milberg and granted as to Trent Koppel.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are essentially undisputed. On the afternoon of January 14, 2015, Defendants Koppel and Milberg, while on duty as police officers for the City of Des Peres, responded to a radio dispatch for suspected shoplifting in a T.J. Maxx store. Des Peres Police Officer Nathaniel Jaeger also responded at about the same time in a different police vehicle. Jaeger parked on the east side of the parking lot, while Koppel and Milberg parked on the west side. While the three officers waited outside, they were told via police dispatch communications from a T.J. Maxx loss-prevention officer that two men were inside the store, and one man was stealing clothing. The officers waited outside for 10 to 15 minutes.

         The loss-prevention officer then informed Koppel and Milberg that the two men, later identified as Plaintiff and his friend, were in the process of leaving the parking lot in a vehicle. The loss-prevention officer provided a description of the men, a partial license plate, and a description of the vehicle. When Plaintiff exited the parking lot on the east side and began traveling westbound on Manchester Road, Jaeger pulled behind Plaintiffs vehicle and turned on his red lights and siren. Milberg exited the parking lot on the west side and stopped his vehicle on Manchester Road ahead of Plaintiff, creating a partial roadblock in the westbound lane. Milberg activated his emergency lights.

         Milberg's dash cam footage, which is part of the summary judgment record, shows Plaintiffs vehicle on Manchester Road alongside the curb, stopped behind three vehicles, with Jaeger's vehicle behind him. Jaeger radioed to Milberg and Koppel that Plaintiff was maneuvering his vehicle to drive over the curb, onto the adjacent grassy area. From a stationary position, Plaintiff turned his vehicle's front wheels and began to drive slowly over the curb. At the same time, Milberg, who had exited his car, ran into the grassy area towards Plaintiffs vehicle. As Plaintiff passed Milberg, Milberg fired his weapon directly at Plaintiff twice within three seconds. The first shot entered the front windshield of Plaintiff s vehicle, and the second shot entered the driver's side window and struck Plaintiff in the back of the arm.

         After passing Milberg, Plaintiff drove toward the road and made a right turn. Police pursued him. Eventually, he exited his car and began to run. Plaintiff was apprehended soon thereafter by Officer Jaeger.

         On July 24, 2015, Plaintiff pled guilty in state court to stealing, resisting arrest by fleeing, and second-degree assault of a law enforcement officer. In regards to the assault charge, the indictment stated that "[Plaintiff] purposely placed [Milberg], a law enforcement officer, in apprehension of immediate serious physical injury, by driving his vehicle in the direction of the officer to escape arrest." ECF No. 74-6 at 1.

         In his second amended complaint, Plaintiff asserts three claims: a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unconstitutional excessive force, in violation of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, against both Defendants (Count I); a claim for common law assault against both Defendants (Count II); and a claim for common law battery against Milberg (Count III). Plaintiff alleges that he "did not drive his vehicle directly at Defendant Milberg, nor did he drive his vehicle at such a speed or in such a manner as to present a direct and immediate threat to any police officers, passersby, or other vehicles." ECF No. 61 ¶20.

         ARGUMENTS OF THE PARTIES

         In support of their motion for summary judgment, Defendants first argue that Plaintiffs § 1983 excessive force claim is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994) (holding that a plaintiff cannot state a claim under § 1983 for "harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, " unless the plaintiff proves that the conviction has already been invalidated). According to Defendants, the facts demonstrate that the alleged excessive force occurred when Plaintiff purposely placed Milberg in apprehension of serious physical injury. Therefore, the allegation that Plaintiff did not drive in a manner presenting a direct threat to Defendants and bystanders would "necessarily imply the invalidity of his guilty plea and conviction." ECFNo. 75 at 13.

         Defendants also contend that, under all of the circumstances, they responded with reasonable force and did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants argue that they perceived the vehicle traveling directly at Milberg, and Milberg fired his weapon because he felt that he was trapped and that Plaintiff was putting him in grave danger. Defendants contend that the fact that the dash cam footage does not show Milberg in imminent danger of being struck does not render unreasonable his belief that he was in imminent danger at the time the events occurred. Defendants also point to the fact that the vicinity was busy, with vehicles and pedestrians potentially traveling through the intersection towards which Plaintiff was driving. Because of the potential harm to pedestrians and other motorists in the area, Defendants argue that Milberg acted objectively reasonably in firing his weapon at Plaintiff.

         Defendants next argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity because, at the time that the events took place, it was not clearly established that the Fourth Amendment prohibited Milberg's conduct. Defendants contend that it was not clear whether Milberg was prohibited from shooting a person suspected of a crime, who was avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when the officer and persons in the immediate area were put at risk by that flight.

         Lastly, Defendants argue that they are entitled to official immunity as to the common law assault and battery claims because they acted reasonably under the circumstances and used no more force than was reasonably necessary. They maintain that because they used their discretion in determining how best to detain Plaintiff, and Milberg discontinued the use of force when Plaintiff no longer presented a danger to ...


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