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Petersen v. Lewis County

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

February 13, 2014

STEVEN O. PETERSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
LEWIS COUNTY and MATTHEW McKNIGHT, Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. # 24 & #27)

RONALD B. LEIGHTON, District Judge.

This case is the result of Lewis County Sheriff's Deputy Matthew McKnight shooting and killing Steven V. Petersen ("Steven") on June 20, 2011. Steven was suspected of forcibly attempting to break into an acquaintance's mobile home and was thought to be armed with a large knife. When McKnight found and confronted Steven, Steven started to pace back and forth, refused to take one of his hands out of his pocket, and repeatedly ignored McKnight's commands to get on the ground. The brief stand-off came to an end when McKnight shot and killed Steven because he thought that Steven was charging towards him. It was discovered after the shooting that Steven did not actually have a knife when he was killed.

Steven's father, Steven O. Petersen ("Plaintiff"), is the named Plaintiff in this suit as Steven's estate's personal representative and as guardian of Steven's minor son, L.P. McKnight and Lewis County are the Defendants. Plaintiff claims that McKnight is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating Steven's Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force and for violating L.P.'s Fourteenth Amendment right to the companionship and society of his father by killing Steven. Plaintiff has also asserts § 1983 Monell claims against Lewis County for McKnight's alleged constitutional violations and negligence claims against both McKnight and the County. Defendants have asserted a counter-claim for malicious prosecution.

Currently before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #24) and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment on Defendants' counterclaims (Dkt. #27). The main issues are whether McKnight violated Steven's Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force, whether McKnight is entitled to qualified immunity even if he did, and, if McKnight did use excessive force, whether the County is liable for McKnight's transgression.

As explained below, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment even though the reasonableness of McKnight's use-of-force cannot be determined at this stage of the litigation because McKnight is entitled to qualified immunity, and Plaintiff's other claims fail as a matter of law. Plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment on Defendants' counter-claims because he had a good-faith basis for this lawsuit.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

On June 20, 2011, just before 2:00 a.m., Jared Brockman and Anita Mecca called 911 from Mecca's Napavine, WA mobile home because a man was trying to break into the home. Brockman identified the intruder as "Steven Petersen" and described what he thought Steven was wearing. Steven had apparently been staying at Mecca's mobile home during the weeks prior to the incident, but Mecca had told him to leave and not to return. While Mecca and Brockman were on the phone with the dispatcher, Steven tried to kick the door down, beat on Brockman's truck, and stabbed the front door with a knife. Steven fled from the scene before the police arrived. An officer who responded to the house confirmed that the suspect had used a large knife to stab the front door.

McKnight was one of the officers to respond to Brockman and Mecca's 911 call. McKnight was told to go to the intersection of 3rd and Vine to help establish a perimeter until a K-9 unit arrived. While at that intersection, McKnight saw someone in his rearview mirror a few blocks behind him. McKnight turned his car around and drove closer to investigate. McKnight shined his spotlight on the individual in the middle of the road. Because the person closely matched the suspect's description, McKnight believed that he was the suspect. He was correct.

Believing that Steven was armed with a knife, McKnight informed dispatch that he was "out with one, " and then he exited his patrol vehicle. He stood in the "V" between the open door and the car and made contact with Steven. When McKnight got out of his car, Steven's right hand was visible, but his left hand was concealed in his sweatshirt pocket. McKnight identified himself as a police officer and told Steven that he needed to see his hands.

Steven started to pace back and forth in the street and kept his left hand hidden inside of his pocket. Because Steven did not comply and was acting erratically, McKnight drew his gun. He continued to repeatedly order Steven to show his hands, but Steven continued to ignore his commands. McKnight ordered Steven to get on the ground, but Steven refused and said, "that ain't going to happen, buddy." McKnight claims that he saw the muscles in Steven's arm flex and his whole body posture change. Then, Steven leaned forward and took two steps towards McKnight. McKnight does not remember how fast Steven moved towards him, but one witness saw the incident from her front window. She claims that Steven "rushed forward." McKnight believed that Steven was going to stab him, so he shot him four times, killing him instantly. A number of witnesses nearby heard McKnight order Steven to get on the ground and show his hands just before the shots were fired. Steven was 20-25 feet away from McKnight's patrol car when he was shot. As it turns out, Steven was unarmed. He may have been holding his wallet in his right hand, but he did not have anything in his concealed hand, and he did not have a weapon in his possession. The entire interaction lasted 1 minute and 11 seconds.

II. DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact which would preclude summary judgment as a matter of law. Once the moving party has satisfied its burden, it is entitled to summary judgment if the non-moving party fails to present, by affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file, "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). "The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is not sufficient." Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995). Factual disputes whose resolution would not affect the outcome of the suit are irrelevant to the consideration of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In other words, "summary judgment should be granted where the nonmoving party fails to offer evidence from which a reasonable [fact finder] could return a [decision] in its favor." Triton Energy, 68 F.3d at 1220.

A. Excessive Force Claim

Plaintiff claims that McKnight used excessive force when he shot and killed Steven. He contends as a threshold matter that Steven did not pose an immediate threat to McKnight's safety when he was shot, so deadly force could not have been justified. He also contends that McKnight unreasonably failed to consider and utilize alternative options short of using ...


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