A federal judge dismissed an excessive force lawsuit against a North Georgia police officer this week, saying the officer acted reasonably when he tackled a man in the street.
The officer was responding to a police chase in June 2015 when he found Terry Christopher Cantrell standing in a road behind a park. Officers told Cantrell to stop. He did not.
When he saw Officer Trevor McClure pull up, Cantrell turned his back to the car and began to walk away. McClure sprinted after him. Cantrell then turned toward McClure and put his hands in the air. About a second later, McClure tackled him.
According to the lawsuit filed against McClure in June, Cantrell hit his head on the ground and was in a coma for 12 days. His lawyers say his medical bill was $350,000. They sued for the city of Ellijay to cover that cost and pay McClure extra money for damages.
But on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story ruled that McClure's actions were legally protected, based on established precedent. Before McClure tackled Cantrell, another officer tried to pull him over. According to a dashcam video, Cantrell continued to drive his truck at about 35 mph, crashed into a wooden sign at a public park and ran away on foot, even though an officer shouted for him to stop.
Story wrote that the car chase created the potential for a serious crime. Plus, when Cantrell turned his back to McClure, it indicated he might have tried to run away again. It didn't matter that Cantrell later turned toward McClure and stuck his hands up, Story wrote. All that mattered was the action that prompted McClure to give chase.
"Officer McClure's decision to tackle Plaintiff to gain control of him was reasonable," the judge wrote. "The level of force used was also reasonable under the circumstances."
Jesse Vaughn, an attorney for Cantrell, said he and other lawyers on the case are considering an appeal.
"While we respect Judge Story," he told the Times Free Press in a statement, "we respectfully and strongly disagree with his analysis and conclusions. We believe that there are issues here as to whether or not officer McClure acted reasonably. We believe that we have met the threshold to be able to pursue this matter through discovery and to a jury verdict. Juries as citizens of the Northern District of Georgia should decide if this behavior is actionable."
Ellijay Police Chief Edward Lacey said he is confident the city will win an appeal. He said they conducted an internal affairs investigation after Cantrell's injury in 2015 and found that McClure acted within the department's policies and procedures. He also said past cases show that you must evaluate an officer's decision from a different point of view than a regular person, because the officer has different training and experiences.
Lacey added that Cantrell had a hunting knife that day, strapped to his leg.
"The extent of the injury was not as much a result of the type of force used as the location," he said. "If it had been 15 or 20 feet left, in the grass, Mr. Cantrell would not have received the injuries he did."
In his order, Story referenced a couple of past rulings from the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where this case could end up. A 2002 case found that police officers and other government employees are protected from lawsuits over actions in which they used their "discretionary authority." The exception? When "every objectively reasonable official" would know the action in question is illegal.
In a 2010 case, the court of appeals found that a plaintiff has to show two things: that the facts establish a constitutional violation, and that the officer's illegal activity is "clearly established" when the act happens.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.