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Morrow v. Meachum

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 8, 2019

NANCY MORROW; ALVIN RUSSELL MOON, on behalf of Estate of Austin Russell Moon, on behalf of C.D., a minor; CHRISTA DONAHUE, on behalf of A.D., a minor, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
JONATHAN MEACHUM, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

          Before DAVIS, COSTA, and OLDHAM, Circuit Judges.

          ANDREW S. OLDHAM, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Austin Moon was a young motorcyclist. He liked to ride fast. So fast, in fact, he twice eluded police officers at triple-digit speeds. On officers' third attempt to stop Moon, a Criminal District Attorney Investigator named Jonathan Meachum caused Moon to crash. Moon died. The question presented is whether Meachum is entitled to qualified immunity. The district court held yes. We affirm.

         I.

         A.

         On June 26, 2014, Meachum was patrolling I-20 near the town of Cisco, Texas. He was driving a marked police SUV. At around 5:30 p.m., Meachum observed motorcyclist Moon speeding at 85 mph and weaving through traffic. Meachum turned on his lights to stop the motorcycle. Moon sped away. Meachum radioed for help.

         Having shaken the police SUV from his tail, Moon exited I-20. He stopped at a gas station and hid behind a gas pump. Eastland County Deputy Sheriff Ben Yarbrough drove by the gas station and spotted Moon. Moon likewise spotted Yarbrough. So Moon again sped away-this time performing a "wheelie." Yarbrough turned on his lights and gave chase. Moon again escaped. Yarbrough radioed that Moon was now headed south on US-183.

         Meanwhile, Investigator Meachum had also exited I-20 onto southbound US-183. But given Moon's pit stop, Meachum was now in front of him. The relevant stretch of US-183 is a two-lane undivided road with rolling hills. Videos in the record show light but consistent traffic going both directions. Videos also show Meachum was driving approximately 100 mph; motorcyclist Moon was clocked at 150 mph and closing quickly behind Meachum.[1] As Meachum reached the top of a gentle hill, he spotted two vehicles in the oncoming (northbound) lane of US-183. Meachum also spotted Moon approaching from behind.

         Thus began the fateful seven seconds at the heart of this case. According to the dashboard camera ("dashcam") on Meachum's police SUV and Moon's expert report, the officer was going approximately 100 mph when he spotted Moon approaching from behind. The dashcam at that moment is timestamped 17:46 and 41 seconds. At 42.3 seconds, Meachum slowed to 93 mph and moved to the right side of his lane. At 43.0 seconds, Meachum slowed to 87 mph. At 44.7 seconds, Meachum slowed to 71 mph. Then, over the next 2.3 seconds- from 44.7 to 47.0-Meachum slowed to 56 mph and moved his SUV leftward and over the center line of US-183. At 47.7 seconds, Moon crashed into the back of Meachum's SUV. The dashcam shows Meachum was traveling 51 mph at impact.[2] Moon died. He was 22.

         B.

         Moon's survivors and estate sued Meachum under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for seizing Moon in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They argued Meachum intentionally positioned his SUV to surprise Moon, to prevent him from eluding arrest a third time, and under the circumstances, to kill him.

         Meachum described his actions as a "rolling block." Meachum testified he performed a rolling block because he wanted to (1) discourage Moon from passing in the oncoming traffic lane and (2) warn the oncoming traffic of the pursuit. Videos corroborated Meachum's testimony there was northbound traffic on the highway. The only dispute was whether that traffic was in the northbound lane or on the shoulder. Either way, a witness stated Moon's motorcycle was already in the northbound lane when Meachum crossed the center line.

         The district court held Meachum was entitled to qualified immunity and entered summary judgment. It held "the law is clear that '[a] police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.'" Morrow v. Meachum, No. 1:16-cv-118, 2017 WL 4124285, at *4 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 18, 2017) (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 386 (2007)). Moon's estate and survivors appealed.[3]

         II.

         Our review is de novo. Vann v. City of Southaven, 884 F.3d 307, 309 (5th Cir. 2018) (per curiam). We view the facts in the light most favorable to Appellants and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor. See ibid. Even so, they cannot show Meachum violated clearly established law.

         A.

         Appellants seek money damages from the personal pocket of a law-enforcement officer. The qualified-immunity doctrine makes that task difficult in ...


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