A panel of federal judges ruled recently a Dothan police officer did not violate the constitutional rights of a man he chased and ultimately shot to death in 2012.
The judges ruled Dothan officer Darren Moody is entitled to qualified immunity in a lawsuit filed by Katherine Thomas, the mother of Christopher Thomas, who was killed June 28, 2012, after Thomas fled from Moody when he attempted to initiate a traffic stop.
Moody was granted summary judgment in U.S. District Court last year. Thomas appealed. A three-judge panel issued its ruling last week.
“Officer Moody’s use of deadly force did not violate Thomas’s constitutional rights. Moreover, on June 28, 2012, it was not clearly established that Officer Moody was prohibited from using deadly force under the circumstances of this case. Because Moody violated no constitutional right, let alone a clearly established one, we conclude he is entitled to qualified immunity,” the ruling states.
According to court documents, the interaction between Moody and Thomas began around 3:50 p.m. when Moody was in the process of training a probationary officer inside a marked vehicle on a residential street. Thomas drove by Moody in a white Ford Explorer. Moody believed Thomas was actually another person wanted on domestic violence charges.
Moody began to pursue Thomas and activated his lights and siren. Thomas accelerated away from Moody.
A high-speed chase through a residential section of Dothan ensued, with speeds reaching 60 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone.
“The dashcam video shows Thomas made five wide or reckless turns onto residential streets in an attempt to elude Officer Moody,” the court ruling states.
Thomas ran four stop signs and an intersection with a flashing red light. He eventually turned into a strip mall parking lot and began moving in a figure eight pattern at a high rate of speed.
Court records indicate residents in parked cars in the parking lot feared for their safety.
An unmarked police car entered the parking lot and Thomas abruptly stopped a few seconds later. Both officers’ vehicles came alongside Thomas’s car, with Moody’s vehicle stopped along the driver’s side.
Moody stepped out and drew his gun. Thomas put the vehicle in reverse and accelerated at a high speed, crashing into a parked car. Moody moved toward the vehicle again and shouted at Thomas to exit the Explorer, but he did not raise his hands or exit the vehicle.
Moody then fired several shots, hitting Thomas in the neck and chest, according to court records.
Moody claimed Thomas had put the vehicle in gear and was moving forward at the time he fired at Thomas. The plaintiff claims the vehicle was stationary when Moody fired. According to the ruling, Moody did not act unlawfully even if the vehicle was stationary.
“Thomas’s aggressive and dangerous driving threatened serious harm to other citizens and the officers as he drove through four stop signs, almost hitting one car, and as he drove through the parking lot. That threat escalated when Thomas rammed into a parked car as the officers closed in. Indeed, the Plaintiff admits that, even though the Explorer was stationary for a moment (at most, a few seconds), Thomas never turned off the engine, never attempted to exit the Explorer, and never raised his hands,” the court ruling stated. “We must evaluate Officer Moody’s conduct in light of all facts and circumstances that confronted him.”
Citing a case precedent, the court ruled Moody could have objectively feared for his life and the lives of others.
“Thomas appeared to be dangerous by virtue of his hazardous driving, he remained in the Explorer with the engine running, even when almost surrounded by officers, and he had crashed the Explorer only a few seconds before Officer Moody fired. As in (Pace v. Capobianco), deadly force was not objectively unreasonable under these circumstances. The Plaintiff’s focus on the few seconds before Officer Moody opened fire ignores the critical events leading up to that moment.”