Plaintiff appeals jury verdict for defendants in section 1983 action in United States District Court for the Western District of New York, Edmund F. Maxwell, Magistrate. Held, that jury charge used the wrong standard in instructing jury on officers' use of deadly force in effecting arrest. Reversed.
Oakes, Meskill, and Pierce, Circuit Judges.
This appeal is from a judgment after a jury verdict in favor of the defendant police officers in a section 1983 action in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, tried by consent before Edmund F. Maxwell, Magistrate. Appellant George Heath claims that the district court improperly instructed the jury as to the legal standard to be applied in considering the use of deadly force to arrest him and abused its discretion in denying Heath's motion to set aside the verdict. Because we agree with Heath's first argument, we reverse and remand for a new trial.
On the night of June 24, 1981, George Heath, assisted by his half-brother, Carl Dudley, attempted to rob the Stadium Inn, a bar-restaurant in Orchard Park, New York. Heath was carrying two concealed handguns -- a 357 magnum revolver, which he carried in a bag, and a small Beretta pistol, which was strapped to his left ankle. Heath did not display either weapon while he was demanding money from the Inn's proprietor but did briefly display the revolver as he ran from the restaurant, after his efforts proved unsuccessful. Heath and Dudley fled the scene in a car driven by Dudley.
A number of Orchard Park police officers were quickly alerted about the attempted robbery and informed by the radio dispatcher that a suspect had brandished a large caliber revolver. Soon three police vehicles were in pursuit of Dudley's car, which shortly thereafter skidded off the road and into a ditch. Heath then threw the revolver out of the car, climbed out the passenger window, and ran up a small embankment next to the ditch. As he reached the top of the embankment three police vehicles surrounded the getaway car. Dudley, who had remained in the car, was quickly apprehended.
Heath, after reaching the top of the embankment, started to run across a field toward a grove of trees. Two police officers who were on the scene testified that they did not see any weapon in Heath's hands. However, two other officers, defendants Michael J. Sherry and Robert E. Zeihm, each testified that he saw a pistol in Heath's right hand as he fled the car. Each also testified that Officer Zeihm yelled at Heath to halt and that, when Heath continued running, each fired a single shot at Heath and that Heath continued to run until he "dove" into a row of trees. A bullet struck Heath in the left thigh, passing through the tissue and leaving his body. As the bullet was never recovered, it was impossible to tell whether Zeihm or Sherry fired the shot which struck Heath.
Another policeman, Officer Joseph Wales, reached Heath approximately ten to fifteen seconds after the shooting. Wales found the Beretta in a holster which was fastened around Heath's ankle. Heath was then arrested and taken to a hospital. He was later convicted of attempted robbery, criminal use of a firearm, and criminal possession of a firearm.
Heath's amended complaint charged that Officers Zeihm and Sherry had violated his constitutional rights to due process by subjecting him to an unreasonable and unnecessary use of deadly physical force during the arrest, and that Police Chief Henning was also culpable because he failed to train adequately Officers Zeihm and Sherry in the use of deadly force. After several days of testimony, Magistrate Maxwell's charge to the jury included an instruction on New York's so-called justification statute, N.Y. Penal Law § 35.30 (McKinney 1987) ("Article 35"),*fn1 and instructions on Heath's constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. As part of the charge, the trial court stated,
The third element concerns itself with whether the acts and conduct of the Defendants deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional rights. Apprehension by the use of deadly force is a secure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment which provides the right of people to be secure and their persons shall not be violated, and application of undue force by law enforcement officers deprives an individual of the Fourteenth Amendment right to be secure in his person and thus represents a deprivation of liberty without due process. The requirement of the use of force under Rule 1983 must be that it neither permits brutal police conduct nor allows such application of undue force that the police conduct shocks the conscience.
After instructing the jury on Article 35, the magistrate went on to say that the plaintiff had the burden of showing that the defendant police officers acted with malice, stating that
the Plaintiff in attempting to prove actual malice need not prove that Defendants acted out of spite or hatred or corrupt desire, however must prove the motivation of the Defendants was improper and wrongful. If you find that any of the Defendants did not act for wrongful or ...