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Vanderhoef v. Dixon

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 21, 2019

Logan Vanderhoef, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Maurice Kelly Dixon, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville. No. 3:16-cv-00508-Thomas A. Varlan, Chief District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          Van R. Irion, LAW OFFICE OF VAN R. IRION, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Matthew J. Evans, Lindsey M. Collins, PAINE BICKERS LLP, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

          Before: GUY, CLAY, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          GRIFFIN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Logan Vanderhoef crashed his Ford Mustang into defendant Maurice Dixon's vehicle. Dixon, an off-duty, part-time reserve police officer, responded by holding Vanderhoef and his passengers at gunpoint for about two minutes. A jury found that by doing so, Dixon violated Vanderhoef's Fourth Amendment rights. But the district court set aside the jury's verdict, ruling that Dixon was entitled to qualified immunity because no clearly established law put him on notice that doing what he did was unconstitutional. We disagree and reverse.

         I.

         This suit arises out of an auto accident and subsequent confrontation between plaintiff Logan Vanderhoef and defendant Maurice Dixon in May of 2016. Defendant, a part-time reserve officer with the City of Maryville, Tennessee, Police Department, was off duty and driving home in his personal vehicle. It was daytime and defendant saw plaintiff's Ford Mustang driving towards him at a high rate of speed. Plaintiff, with two passengers in the car, came around a curve going too fast and swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic, where defendant was driving. Plaintiff then swerved past the oncoming-traffic lane, into the ditch on the side of the road, and struck a telephone pole before swerving back across the road and hitting defendant's front fender. After the collision, both cars came to a stop approximately 120 feet apart.

         Defendant got out of his vehicle holding his personal handgun and approached plaintiff's car in a hurry.[1] The Mustang's airbags had deployed in the collision, and all three occupants were trying to exit the vehicle as defendant approached. With his gun drawn, defendant began directing the three teenagers out of the car by repeatedly yelling, "Let me see your hands, get on the ground." Defendant pointed the gun at plaintiff's head the whole time he was giving these orders. All three teenage occupants of the car complied and got on the ground outside the vehicle. Dixon held them at gunpoint for roughly two minutes.

         A third-party witness, Martha Keller, saw everything. Once defendant began ordering the teenagers to the ground and pointing his gun at plaintiff, she quickly intervened. She got out of her car and told defendant "[y]ou need to calm down. You need to put that gun away." He responded, "Shut up, mind your own business, and get back in your car." When Keller threatened to call the police, defendant reholstered his gun and told her that he was a police officer; Keller called anyway. And after defendant and Keller finished speaking, defendant told plaintiff and his passengers that they could get up and plaintiff could call his mother. While Keller was on the phone with police, defendant returned to his car, put his gun away, retrieved his badge, and showed it to Keller.

         Plaintiff filed this federal lawsuit against defendant, alleging deprivation of his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and assault and false imprisonment under Tennessee law. The case went to trial. At the conclusion of plaintiff's case in chief, defendant moved for a directed verdict on qualified-immunity grounds. The district court took that motion under advisement.

         The jury found in plaintiff's favor and awarded him $500 for each of his three claims. After trial, defendant renewed his claim for qualified immunity in a motion for judgment as a matter of law.[2] The district court granted the motion on qualified-immunity grounds and dismissed all three claims. The court concluded that defendant violated plaintiff's constitutional rights but that the law was not clearly established to put defendant on ...


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