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Gibbs v. City of Bridgeport

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 29, 2018

MELISSA GIBBS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BRIDGEPORT, et al, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         On the night of April 1, 2013, Detective Christopher Borona shot and killed a young man named Bryan Stukes. He shot Stukes shortly after he saw Stukes on a public sidewalk in Bridgeport, Connecticut apparently threatening another man with a rifle. When Detective Borona intervened, Stukes ran away, and Detective Borona pursued him. Stukes dropped his rifle, and Detective Borona shot and killed him some moments later.

         The administrator of Stukes' estate has filed this lawsuit against Detective Borona, the Bridgeport police chief, and the City of Bridgeport alleging in principal part that Stukes was the victim of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The defendants have now moved for summary judgment. I will grant in part and deny in part their motions. As to the primary issues-whether Detective Borona used excessive force and whether Detective Borona should have qualified immunity-I conclude on the basis of compelling video of the events in question that a genuine issue of fact remains for a jury to decide at trial. When I view the video and other evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff (as I am required to do when evaluating a motion for summary judgment), I have to conclude Detective Borona knew that Stukes was no longer armed when he fired the shot that killed him. If plaintiff can prove at trial that Detective Borona knew he was shooting an unarmed man, then plaintiff should be permitted to try to convince the jury that the decision to shoot Stukes was objectively unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and the Court in turn may consider anew in light of the trial evidence and jury findings whether Detective Borona should be entitled to qualified immunity.

         My ruling today is not a conclusion that Detective Borona violated anyone's rights. Detective Borona was pulled in on the spur of the moment to respond to an explosive situation stemming from Stukes' decision to brandish a rifle in a threatening manner on a public sidewalk. My conclusion for now is solely that the facts surrounding Detective Borona's decision after pursuing Stukes to fire the shot that killed him are disputed enough that it should be for a jury to decide what happened at trial.

         Background

         The relevant events all occur within a few minutes on the night of April 1, 2013, as shown on video recorded by three different surveillance cameras mounted outside Golfinho's Fish Market store on the corner of Pequonnock Street and Benham Avenue in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Two of the cameras show from opposite angles the sidewalk and street area on Pequonnock Street in front of the store. The third camera shows the sidewalk and street area on Benham Street just around the corner from the front of the store. The summary judgment record helpfully includes a single exhibit that combines all three synchronized video feeds, along with an overlay of contemporaneous police radio transmissions and audio of a 911 call that was made to the police. See Ex. A-l. My factual recitation below is based principally on what I can see and hear in the video, as reasonably interpreted in the light most favorable to plaintiff. To the extent that I recount facts below that are not either shown or heard in the video, these facts are drawn from elsewhere in the record to the extent that plaintiff has either admitted or not disputed them.[1]

         The video shows a man named Anthony Davis on the sidewalk near the Golfinho's store while placing a 911 call to the police. Ex. A-l at 9:46:53. He told the dispatcher that a man named "Bryan" (who turned out to be the decedent, Bryan Stukes) was trying to shoot him with a rifle.[2] Davis walked up to the front of the store, pointed inside, and asked in a loud voice: "Is there an officer there?" Id. at 9:47:05. Davis then walked away from the store entrance and stood in the middle of Benham Avenue looking down the street while continuing to talk to the dispatcher. Id. at 9:47:51.

         The video then shows Stukes and his girlfriend walking quickly up Benham Avenue toward Davis, while Davis moved out of the street and on to the sidewalk in front of the store. Id. at 9:47:58. Just as he reached the corner of Benham and Pequonnock, Stukes pulled out from his pants a long rifle. Id. at 9:47:58. After he then rounded the corner heading toward Davis who was in front of the store, Stukes held the rifle horizontally at a slightly downward angle, and he was within about six feet of Davis who stood by the curb in front of the store and who continued to talk to the police on his phone. Ibid. Stukes then advanced to just about two feet away from Davis, while Davis in turn taunted him, saying "Shoot me!" repeatedly. Stukes' girlfriend came up from behind to separate the two men. The barrel of the rifle was mostly pointing at about knee level in the direction of both Davis and Stukes' girlfriend, although the video shows that at one point the barrel was briefly raised to the level of Davis's stomach. Ibid.

         Stukes' girlfriend then managed to push Stukes away from Davis and back toward the corner of Benham Avenue. Id. at 9:48:09. But she did not succeed in wresting the rifle away from him. Id. at 9:48:20. She then turned around and approached Davis who was now standing by the curb slightly to the right of the front door of the store. Id. at 9:48:23. Stukes in turn went back again to confront Davis. Id. at 9:48:24-25. He now held the rifle on the side of him that faced the front door of the store. During this second approach, Stukes held the rifle in both hands and held it horizontally at a slightly downward angle. Id. at 9:48:25.

         In the meantime, Detective Borona happened to be inside Golfinho's store on a coffee break while on duty. He was armed with a Smith & Wesson handgun and wore a badge on his hip but was not in police dress uniform. He testified at his deposition that while he was in the back of the store getting coffee from a coffee machine he heard someone scream that there was a man outside with a gun. Doc. #103-6 at 8. He went to the front of the store, saw Stukes outside holding a rifle in a threatening manner, and he then drew his own handgun and went outside to confront Stukes. Id. at 8-13.

         Detective Borona then opened the door of the store with his gun drawn. Ex. A-l at 9:48:24-25. At that point, Stukes was turned away from the door, facing Davis who was at the curb. But Stukes suddenly turned to his right to see the detective emerging from the door behind him. Id. at 9:48:25. Detective Borona was holding his handgun aimed at Stukes as he came out onto the sidewalk. Stukes swiveled toward Detective Borona, still with the rifle held low at a slightly downward angle, and he swung the rifle across Detective Borona's path as he turned to run back from the direction he had come toward the corner of Benham Avenue. Id. at 9:48:27.

         Although the rifle swung across Detective Borona's path, Stukes did not stop to point the rifle at Detective Borona or fire the rifle at any time. By the time that Detective Borona had emerged from the door and was fully on the sidewalk in front, Stukes was already in full flight toward the street corner with his back to Detective Borona. Id. at 9:48:28.

         Detective Borona yelled "police" and "drop the gun," Doc. #107-2 (¶ 16), and he fired once at Stukes, hitting him in the legs as Stukes was rounding the corner. Just after Stukes rounded the corner while still on the sidewalk on Benham Avenue by the side of the corner store, he fell to the ground, and his hat, the rifle, and another small object fell in front of him. The video shows the rifle sliding several feet forward down the sidewalk, colliding with a signpost, then spinning in part to end up lying on the sidewalk inches from the sign post and parallel to the curb inches away, next to the back wheel of a parked car. Ex. A-l at 9:48:29-31.

         Because of Stukes' rounding of the corner with Detective Borona some distance behind him, it is unclear from the video-and the point of greatest dispute between the parties-whether Detective Borona was in a position to see or hear the rifle fall or whether, if he was in such a position, he actually knew or realized that Stukes was no longer armed with the rifle. At one particular framepoint in the video, Stukes is still on the ground, while the rifle is still moving and in contact with the signpost, and Detective Borona's shoulders are already turned as if he has rounded the corner, such that plaintiff has a strong argument that Detective Borona was in a position to see Stukes' loss of the rifle. Id. at 9:48:30. Viewing the facts as I must at this stage in the light most favorable to plaintiff, I must assume for present purposes that Detective Borona knew that Stukes had dropped the rifle and knew that he no longer had it in his possession.

         The video shows Detective Borona coming into view one second later on Benham Avenue about a half a car's length behind Stukes who was immediately back on his feet and who resumed running away straight down the Benham Avenue sidewalk. Id. at 9:48:31. Detective Borona still had his gun in both hands leveled in a ready-to-fire position at Stukes as he fled. Detective Borona continued about a car's length down the sidewalk next to the signpost where the rifle lay on the ground. At that point, Detective Borona shot again at Stukes, causing Stukes' left arm to fly up. Id. at 9:48:33.

         Although Stukes continued to run away down the street and out of camera view, this second shot by Detective Borona hit Stukes in the back and soon proved fatal after Stukes collapsed some distance away. The video shows that a total of eight seconds elapsed between when the door to the store first opened for Detective Borona to emerge at 9:48:25 and when Detective Borona fired the second and fatal shot at 9:48:33.

         After Detective Borona's second shot he almost immediately stopped the pursuit of Stukes. Id. at 9:48:34. He turned around to his right and appears in the video to see Stukes' girlfriend coming down the sidewalk toward him and then to look down to his left at the rifle where it was lying next to the signpost and curb on the sidewalk. Id. at 9:48:36. This is the first point in the video where it is clear that Detective Borona turned his head downward in the direction of the rifle on the ground.

         For the next 30 seconds or so, Detective Borona paced around with his gun in the same area, looking around and looking down at the sidewalk, at which point he removed his radio from a waistband and appeared to speak into it. Id. at 9:49:03. About two more minutes passed with Detective Borona maintaining his same position in this area, repeatedly looking down toward the rifle and at Stukes' hat, before more police officers arrived. Id. at 9:51:21.

         Plaintiff in her capacity as administratrix of the estate of Stukes has filed this lawsuit against Detective Borona, Police Chief Joseph Gaudett, and the City of Bridgeport alleging an amalgam of federal and state law claims.[3] All three defendants have moved for summary judgment.

         Discussion

         The principles governing the Court's review of a motion for summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment may be granted only if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). I must view the facts in the light most favorable to the party who opposes the motion for summary judgment and then decide if those facts would be enough-if eventually proved at trial-to allow a reasonable jury to decide the case in favor of the opposing party. My role at summary judgment is not to judge the credibility of witnesses or to resolve close contested issues but solely to decide if there are enough facts that remain in dispute to warrant a trial. See generally Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam); Pollard v. New York Methodist Hosp., 861 F.3d 374, 378 (2d Cir. 2017).

         Fourth Amendment claim against Detective Borona

         I will first consider plaintiffs Fourth Amendment claim for excessive force against Detective Borona. As for any such claim against a police officer in the context of a § 1983 lawsuit for money damages, I must consider whether the police officer has violated the Constitution and, if so, whether the police officer is entitled to qualified immunity. Of course, a court has discretion to skip the constitutional question and simply address the application of qualified immunity (i.e., whether any constitutional violation amounted to a violation of clearly established law of which any objectively reasonably officer would have been aware). SeePearson v. Callahan,555 U.S. 223, 242 (2009). But I won't do that here. Bryan Stukes is dead. And Detective Borona is accused of a very serious violation of constitutional rights. In such life-and-death cases and where a court's ruling has ...


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