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Knight v. Miami-Dade County

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 5, 2017

MICHAEL KNIGHT, through Cheryl Denise Kerr, as Personal Representative and Next-of-Kin, LATASHA CURE, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, a Florida County and Political Subdivision of the State of Florida, MIAMI-DADE POLICE DEPARTMENT, a Government Subdivision of Miami-Dade County, ROBERT PARKER, former Director, Miami-Dade Police Department, Individually and as an Officer of the Miami-Dade Police Department, JAMES LOFTUS, Interim Director, Miami-Dade Police Department, Individually and as an Officer of the Miami-Dade Police Department, OFFICER RYAN ROBINSON, Individually and as an Officer of the Miami-Dade Police Department, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:09-cv-23462-EGT

          Before MARCUS, JILL PRYOR, and SILER, [*] Circuit Judges.

          MARCUS, Circuit Judge:

         This tragic case began in the late hours of November 12, 2007, when Miami-Dade Police Officers Ryan Robinson and Michael Mendez discharged their firearms at a Cadillac SUV driven by nonparty Frisco Blackwood and carrying plaintiffs Michael Knight and Latasha Cure as passengers. The shots ultimately killed Blackwood and Knight and wounded Cure. Two years later, Knight's estate and Cure individually filed an eleven-count complaint against the officers, the two detectives who questioned Cure on the night of the shooting, Miami-Dade County, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the directors of the Miami-Dade Police Department, seeking damages for various civil rights violations and claims arising under state law.

         The court dismissed two of the eleven counts and granted summary judgment to the defendants on five others. Only Knight's and Cure's civil rights claims and assault and battery claims against the officers survived and proceeded to trial. The jury ultimately returned a verdict for the defendants on all remaining counts. After the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial was denied and final judgment was entered for the police officers, the plaintiffs timely appealed. They alleged error in six different trial rulings that they claim warrant a new trial. They also challenged the court's grants of summary judgment to the County, the supervising officers, and the detectives who questioned Cure after the shooting.

         After careful review, we hold that the trial court did not abuse its considerable discretion in any of the challenged trial rulings. Further, we conclude that the court did not err in granting summary judgment to the County, the supervising officers, or the detectives. Accordingly, we affirm.

         I.

         A.

         The undisputed facts in this sad case are these: On the evening of November 12, 2007, Officers Ryan Robinson and Michael Mendez of the Miami-Dade Police Department discharged their firearms, killing Frisco Blackwood and Michael Knight[1] and wounding Latasha Cure. At around 10:00 p.m., Blackwood, Knight, Cure, and two of their friends left a Miami nightclub in a silver Cadillac SUV. Blackwood was driving, Knight sat in the front passenger seat, and Cure and her two friends sat in the second row of seats. Cure was seated directly behind the driver. The two friends were dropped off and Blackwood, Knight, and Cure continued driving. The passengers were all unarmed.

         The Cadillac was traveling north on North Miami Avenue when a police car that had been idling at the intersection of North Miami Avenue and Northwest 62nd Street did a U-turn and began to follow it. The police car was occupied by Officers Robinson and Mendez, who were on duty as part of the Robbery Intervention Unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department. The officers contend that the Cadillac ran a red light, while the plaintiffs say they were stopped at a red light when they noticed the police car begin to follow them. According to Cure's sworn statement taken shortly after these events, the plaintiffs drove north on North Miami Avenue, made a right turn on Northwest 67th Street, sped up, drove a few more blocks, and then made a right turn on Northeast 2nd Avenue, with the officers in pursuit. The Cadillac sped up and drove a few more blocks before turning right again, now heading westbound on Northwest 65th Street. The officers also sped up and continued following the Cadillac.

         The officers attempted to effect a traffic stop by using their P.A. system to order the Cadillac to pull over. The Cadillac continued driving and, after crossing North Miami Avenue going west, it entered a dead end and stopped. The officers parked their car behind the Cadillac, turned on their spotlight, exited the car with guns drawn, and ordered the plaintiffs to exit the Cadillac.

         On this much, the parties agree. But when it comes to the details and the events that followed the cars' arrival at the dead end, the facts become more muddled. This is because the only surviving passenger of the Cadillac -- Cure --presented drastically different accounts in her sworn statement taken the morning after the shooting (November 12, 2007), and then later in her deposition, which was conducted some three years and two months later (February 1, 2011).

         Detectives Terry Goldston and Richard Raphael of the Miami-Dade Police Department took Cure's sworn statement after the shooting. According to that statement, when the passengers noticed the police car following them, Knight said, "Oh, shit. Squally's [police] behind us." After driving a few more blocks, Blackwood asked Knight, "Should I bring it?" Knight responded, "Bring it, " which Cure said she interpreted as meaning "[d]on't stop for the police officer." Cure said that when the Cadillac stopped at the dead end, Blackwood's hands were on the steering wheel and the car was in reverse. The officers approached the car on both the driver's side and the passenger's side. Blackwood then rotated the steering wheel clockwise and accelerated backward, causing the car to swing toward the officer standing by the driver's side window. The officer quickly moved to avoid being struck by the car, and then both officers began firing into the moving vehicle. As the car reversed, Blackwood slumped over to the side and the shots continued; the Cadillac then collided with the police car, two stop signs, and a parked car before it ultimately stopped against a fence.

         According to Cure's deposition testimony, however, when the plaintiffs noticed the police car following them, Knight said "something about squallies [police] behind us." Cure testified that the police car had its headlights off. At this point, they were traveling approximately fifty miles per hour in a thirty-five mile-per-hour zone. Blackwood asked Knight what he should do, and Knight responded, "just hit it. Get out of here." Cure said that when the Cadillac stopped in the dead end, Blackwood's right hand was down on his right side and his left hand was obscured from her view. The officers turned on their headlights and spotlights and got out of the car with their guns drawn; one approached the driver's side and the other approached the passenger's side. Cure then heard a low noise like a "clink" followed by a single shot aimed directly at the driver from the officer standing next to the driver's window; at this point, the car was not moving. After that shot, Blackwood's body slumped forward and to the right; the car then began to accelerate in reverse. The path of the reversing car forced the officer who had fired on the driver to quickly move to avoid being struck by the car. While the car reversed, the officers continued to fire until the car came to rest against a fence.

         The officers' shots ultimately killed Blackwood and Knight. Cure was shot once in her right thigh. After the shooting, Cure was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital where she underwent surgery to remove the bullet and suture the wound. After the surgery, Detective Goldston approached Cure and said he would drive her home once she was discharged. Rather than go with him, Cure checked herself out of the hospital and left with a friend at about 1:30 a.m. to go back to the scene, where many of her friends had gathered. While she was there, Detective Goldston called Cure's cell phone and told her that he needed to take her statement at the police station. Cure then left the scene with a friend to return to her house.

         When Cure got home, Detective Goldston was waiting for her. Cure agreed to accompany him to the police station; they left for the station before she had a chance to go inside and change out of the hospital scrubs she was wearing. They arrived at the police station at about 3:00 a.m. and Cure was placed in a conference room. She remained there for about an hour before Detectives Goldston and Raphael returned to begin their questioning. The Detectives questioned her intermittently for about forty-five minutes and then left her alone for another hour. Cure testified that, while the officers were gone, she "kept dozing off and going back and forth to the bathroom." She also testified that while they were asking her questions, they were writing notes to each other on a napkin and passing the napkin back and forth. At 8:20 a.m., the detectives brought in a court reporter and took an official sworn statement that lasted until 9:13 a.m. Cure testified that, by this point, her pain medication was wearing off and her wound was bleeding through her hospital scrubs. After she gave her statement, Detective Goldston drove her home.

         B.

         Two years later, on November 12, 2009, Knight's estate and Cure individually filed an eleven-count complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida against Miami-Dade County, the Miami-Dade Police Department, Former Police Department Director Robert Parker, Interim Police Department Director James Loftus, Officer Robinson, Officer Mendez, Detective Goldston, and Detective Raphael. The counts included § 1983 claims by Knight and Cure against Miami-Dade County, the Miami-Dade Police Department, Officer Robinson, and Officer Mendez for violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments due to excessive use of force (Counts 1, 2, 9, and 10); wrongful-death claims by Knight against the County, the Police Department, Officer Robinson, and Officer Mendez (Counts 3 and 4); assault and battery claims by Knight and Cure against the County, the Police Department, Officer Robinson, and Officer Mendez (Counts 5, 6, 7, and 8); and a § 1983 claim by Cure against Detectives Goldston and Raphael for violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments due to coercive interrogation (Count 11).

         All of the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint based on qualified immunity, immunity under Florida law, and failure to state a claim. The court dismissed the Miami-Dade Police Department from the action entirely, and it also dismissed the state-law claims against the County. The court denied the motion to dismiss the remaining nine counts. The case was then referred to a magistrate judge, with the consent of all parties, for further proceedings including trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 73(a).

         After discovery, all of the defendants moved for summary judgment on the remaining counts. Officers Robinson and Mendez and Detectives Goldston and Raphael argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity, while the County claimed that it was immune from suit on the state-law claims and that the plaintiffs had failed to show the existence of an official policy or an unofficial custom or practice necessary to subject the County to liability. Directors Parker and Loftus moved for summary judgment as well, urging that they, too, were entitled to qualified immunity and that they had never been named in any counts of the complaint.

         The court ultimately granted summary judgment to the County, Directors Parker and Loftus, and Detectives Goldston and Raphael on all counts levelled against them, as well as on the wrongful-death claims pending against Officers Robinson and Mendez. However, the court denied summary judgment on the assault and battery and § 1983 claims against Officers Robinson and Mendez, concluding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. Officers Robinson and Mendez appealed the denial of summary judgment. On December 19, 2013, a panel of this Court affirmed the denial of summary judgment in an unpublished decision. See Knight v. Miami-Dade Cty., 548 F.App'x 607, 608 (11th Cir. 2013). We concluded that the court did not err in finding that genuine issues of material fact remained regarding the officers' conduct. Id.

         When the case returned to the trial court, the court made several rulings on evidentiary issues including, as relevant to this appeal, the admissibility of various expert witnesses' testimony and the admissibility of criminal-history evidence. Trial started on June 9, 2014. Among other rulings, the trial court limited the plaintiffs' cross-examination of the defendants' police-practices expert to one hour. Evidence of the Police Department's pursuit policy, proffered by the plaintiffs, was excluded. And the trial court declined to give a jury instruction that had been requested by the plaintiffs -- that "the Defendants are not justified in using deadly force if their own objectively unreasonable actions created the very risk that generated the eventual use of deadly force."

         After the plaintiffs rested their case, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). The trial court deferred ruling on the motion, and, after the defendants rested, they renewed the motion. At the conclusion of the trial but before the case was submitted to the jury, the plaintiffs in turn moved pursuant to Rule 50(b) for judgment in their favor on all affirmative defenses; again, the trial court reserved ruling until after the jury's verdict.

         On June 19, 2014, jury instructions were given and the jury began its deliberations. After seven hours of deliberation spanning two days, the jury informed the court that it was ready to consider itself a hung jury. The judge ordered them to continue deliberating and, eventually, the parties consented to receiving a verdict by a supermajority (at least six to two). The jury ultimately rendered its verdict by a vote of seven to one for the defendants on all counts. As for Knight, the verdict questions read this way:

1. Do you find from the greater weight of the evidence in Plaintiff Michael Knight's favor on the federal claim of excessive use of force against Defendant Ryan Robinson?
. . .
2. Do you find from the greater weight of the evidence in Plaintiff Michael Knight's favor on the federal claim of excessive use of force against Defendant Michael Mendez?
. . .
3. Do you find from the greater weight of the evidence in Plaintiff Michael Knight's favor on the state law claims of assault and/or battery against Defendant Ryan Robinson?
. . .
4. Do you find from the greater weight of the evidence in Plaintiff Michael Knight's favor on the state law claims of assault and/or battery against Defendant Michael Mendez?

         The jury answered each question in the negative; again, the split was seven to one. The same verdicts were rendered for Cure.

         After the verdict, the plaintiffs moved for a new trial. They alleged that the trial court committed error in excluding evidence of any violations of the Police Department's pursuit policy, admitting testimony from the defendants' police-practices expert, failing to give the jury a proffered instruction, and admitting some criminal-history evidence. The trial court entered an omnibus order finding no error on any of the points raised and resolving certain other disputed issues about costs. Accordingly, an amended final judgment was entered on the same day reflecting the apportionment of costs between the parties. The plaintiffs timely appealed.

         II.

         This is undoubtedly a heartbreaking case. But on appeal, the plaintiffs do not argue that the jury's verdict was rendered against the substantial weight of the evidence. Rather, Knight and Cure say that six discrete errors entitle them to a new trial: the inclusion of the defendants' police-practices expert; the exclusion of the plaintiffs' ballistics and reconstruction experts; the exclusion of evidence showing violations of the Police Department's pursuit policy; the refusal to give a specific jury instruction; the admission of some criminal-history evidence; and, finally, the failure to address the prejudicial nature of the defendants' opening and closing statements.

         "A timely motion for new trial is addressed to the sound judicial discretion of the trial court"; therefore, "[a] decision denying a new trial motion is reviewable only for an abuse of that discretion." Hercaire Int'l, Inc. v. Argentina, 821 F.2d 559, 562 (11th Cir. 1987). In evaluating whether specific trial errors warrant a new trial, we apply the harmless-error standard of Fed.R.Civ.P. 61. In accordance with Rule 61, we will conclude "that a new trial is warranted only where the error has caused substantial prejudice to the affected party (or, stated somewhat differently, affected the party's 'substantial rights' or resulted in 'substantial injustice')." Peat, Inc. v. Vanguard Research, Inc., 378 F.3d 1154, 1162 (11th Cir. 2004). We take each alleged trial error in turn.

         A.

         Knight and Cure first say that they are entitled to a new trial because the trial court erred in admitting testimony from W. Kenneth Katsaris, the defendants' police-practices expert. Katsaris was called as a rebuttal expert to the plaintiffs' police-practices expert, Robert Pusins. Pusins had testified that the officers' behavior was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances of this case. In rebuttal, Katsaris testified that the officers "acted objectively reasonabl[y] and in accordance with what is recognized as training throughout the country." Before trial, both sides moved to exclude the others' police-practices witness for various reasons; the trial court denied these motions to the extent that they sought to exclude the witnesses entirely, but it did place limits on the scope of the testimony. Specifically, the court ruled that the police-practices experts could not be questioned on "the constitutionality of the Miami-Dade Police Department's policies" or on "any ballistics, bullet projectile, or accident reconstruction issues, " and that they could not "testify, reference, or analyze any caselaw before the jury." After the verdict, the plaintiffs argued that the inclusion of the defendants' expert entitled them to a new trial.

         "We review for abuse of discretion the district court's decisions regarding the admissibility of expert testimony and the reliability of an expert opinion." United States v. Frazier, 387 F.3d 1244, 1258 (11th Cir. 2004) (en banc); see also Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999) ("[A] court of appeals is to apply an abuse-of-discretion standard when it reviews a trial court's decision to admit or exclude expert testimony.") (quotations and alterations omitted). Under this standard, "we must affirm unless we find that the district court has made a clear error of judgment, or has applied the wrong legal standard." Frazier, 387 F.3d at 1259.

         The starting point in our analysis is found in Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which controls the admission ...


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