“[A] reasonable jury could find facts showing Stewart did not pose an immediate danger of serious physical harm and thus the use of deadly force was unreasonable.”

Mary Stewart as Administrator of the Estate of Luke O. Stewart, Sr., Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant v.

City of Euclid; Matthew Rhodes, Euclid Police Officer

No. 18-3767

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

At approximately 7:00 a.m. on Monday March 13, 2017, a Euclid, Ohio resident called Euclid Police to report a suspicious vehicle outside her residence at 21891 South Lake Shore Boulevard.  The caller said a black car she did not recognize had been idling for about twenty minutes with its parking lights on.

Mr. Luke Stewart was parked in his Honda Accord outside of 21891 South Lake Shore Boulevard, Euclid, Ohio when a resident called in to report him as suspicious.  This is where he was parked when Euclid Police arrived.

Euclid Police Officers Matthew Rhodes and Louis Catalani were dispatched to check on the vehicle. Hidden from view behind a tinted windows of a gray Honda Accord, was a sleeping Mr. Luke Stewart. According to his family he had hoped to spend the night at a friend’s house, but when the friend did not answer his phone, Mr. Stewart parked nearby on South Lakeshore Boulevard and slept in his car. The area is residential with a school in close proximity. Officer Catalani was the first to arrive at the scene. Initially, he positioned his car behind Mr. Stewart’s Honda, similar to a traffic stop. Officer Catalani noticed the vehicle’s running lights were on. Officer Catalani shined his flashlight through the car’s windows and saw a digital scale in the center console area, an item he thought to be a burnt marijuana blunt in the passenger seat, and an aluminum screw top he believed to be from a wine bottle. Officer Catalani also noticed Mr. Stewart who appeared asleep in the driver’s seat. Catalani ran the license plate of the vehicle, which indicated the vehicle’s owner had an outstanding warrant, but ultimately thought Mr. Stewart looked too young to be the owner. While Officer Rhodes drove to the scene, he heard Officer Catalani radio that the car was occupied but that he did not believe it was by the vehicle’s owner.

Officer Catalani stated, “once you get here, we’re goina [sic], uh, end up pulling this guy out.” When Officer Rhodes arrived, Officer Catalani explained what he had seen inside the car, and then Officer Rhodes moved his car in front of the Honda to limit the potential for escape. Officer Rhodes turned on his takedown lights and his spotlight but, like Officer Catalani, did not turn on his vehicle’s dashboard camera or his belt microphone. Neither officer turned on the cruiser beacons. Officer Rhodes approached Mr. Stewart’s vehicle from the passenger’s side while Officer Catalani approached from the driver’s side. Officer Catalani knocked on the window, and Mr. Stewart woke up. Officer Catalani waived at Mr. Stewart and said, “hi.” Mr. Stewart waived back, sat up in the seat, and started the car. Neither officer announced himself as a police officer though each was in uniform. Officer Catalani yelled for Officer Stewart to “stop” and opened the driver’s side door in an attempt to keep the vehicle from moving. He grabbed Mr. Stewart’s left arm and tried to pull him away from the gearshift and out of the vehicle. Officer Catalani reached around Mr. Stewart’s head with his right arm in an attempt to grab a pressure point under Mr. Stewart’s jaw. Mr. Stewart continually refused the commands but did begin to yell. While Officer Catalani attempted to pull Mr. Stewart out of the Honda through the driver’s side door, Officer Rhodes opened the passenger’s side door and began pushing Mr. Stewart. Officer Rhodes leaned his upper body into the vehicle and braced his knees on the passenger’s seat. Mr. Stewart did not prevent Officer Rhodes from pushing him, but again refused to comply and put the vehicle into gear and drove the Honda into Officer Rhodes’s patrol vehicle. While Officer Catalani testified that the Honda struck the patrol car “pretty hard,” neither officer remembers falling or losing balance from the impact. Mr. Stewart was able to drive around Officer Rhodes’s cruiser on the side closest to the center of the road.

Officer Rhodes continued trying to gain control of the gear shift from the passenger’s side of the car and, fearing his legs would be trapped if Mr. Stewart were to hit the open car door against Officer Rhodes’s patrol car as he went around it, Officer Rhodes pulled his legs into the Honda. The door shut behind him. Officer Catalani, who was still moving alongside Stewart’s open driver’s side door, decided to disengage with Mr. Stewart in fear of being injured by an oncoming vehicle. Officer Catalani estimates that ten to fifteen seconds elapsed from the time he tapped on Mr. Stewart’s window to Mr. Stewart’s driving around Officer Rhodes’s patrol car.

To this point, Mr. Stewart had made no attempt to comply or strike either officer. He began driving the vehicle down the road within the speed limit at around twenty-five miles per hour. While driving, Mr. Stewart looked over at Officer Rhodes and asked, “Why are you in my car?” Officer Rhodes yelled at Mr. Stewart in response, but does not recall what he said. Officer Catalani chased behind on foot.  Inside the car, Officer Rhodes was intermittently attempting to gain control of the gearshift and the ignition keys while also striking Stewart in the side of the head with a closed fist. The strikes did not seem to have any effect on Mr. Stewart and he did not try to defend himself; Mr. Stewart simply responded to each blow by saying, “Naw, n****.” Each time Officer Rhodes pushed the gearshift into neutral, Mr. Stewart pushed it back into drive. Officer Rhodes eventually deployed his taser into Mr. Stewart’s right side. Mr. Stewart shouted “Ah,” and said, “you shot me.” Officer Rhodes deployed the taser trigger six times, but it had little effect on Mr. Stewart. He did not use the drive stun feature; Officer Rhodes did, however, use the taser to strike Mr. Stewart in the head causing a cut to open. Again, Stewart did not respond other than to say, “Naw, n****.”

The Honda came to a stop in the intersection of South Lake Shore and East 222nd Street while making a left-hand turn. Officer Rhodes believed he and Mr. Stewart hit another car because of how abruptly Mr. Stewart’s vehicle stopped. Officer Catalani testified that the Honda never struck a vehicle, however, and he thought the car simply stalled out. Officer Rhodes believes he was thrown into the dashboard but does not “remember exactly.” He testified that, during the stop, Mr. Stewart swatted at him and pushed him away but not with a closed fist. Officer Rhodes got the car into neutral and shut off the engine, but could not get the keys out of the ignition. Officer Rhodes heard dispatch instruct nearby officers to assist. The car was stopped for approximately ten to fifteen seconds in the intersection; Mr. Stewart did not comply to Officer Rhodes’ orders or try to get out of the car. Moments before Officer Catalani reached the vehicle from behind, Mr. Stewart turned the car back on and continued driving.  After completing the turn onto 222nd Street, Mr. Stewart drove the car at approximately twenty to thirty miles per hour. Officer Rhodes unsuccessfully tried again to put the car in park. The Honda went up over the curb and around a telephone pole before returning to the street. The car mounted the curb again near the intersection of 222nd Street and Milton Avenue. Officer Rhodes states he was thrown forward the second time the car struck the curb and Mr. Stewart used his right arm to push him forward, but Mr. Stewart made no attempt to strike Officer Rhodes. At this point, Officer Rhodes was able to get the car back into neutral, but Mr. Stewart continued to rev the engine. Officer Rhodes believed that if he and Mr. Stewart “went forward again we were going to hit a telephone pole,” implying the vehicle had stopped moving forward. It was then that Officer Rhodes pulled out his pistol and fired two shots into Mr. Stewart’s torso. Mr. Stewart looked at Rhodes, said “Naw, N****,” and, according to Officer Rhodes, Mr. Stewart attempted to “punch” him for the first time. Officer Rhodes shot Mr. Stewart three additional times, striking him in the neck, chest, and wrist. Stewart died from his wounds. A later investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation reported that continuous radio traffic showed fifty-nine seconds elapsed from the time Officer Catalani advised dispatch that Mr. Stewart began to flee to the time he reported shots fired.

The estate of Mr. Stewart filed a lawsuit against the City of Euclid: federal claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violating Stewart’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force and state claims (1) wrongful death; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (3) assault and battery; (4) willful, wanton, and reckless conduct; and (5) survivorship claims against Rhodes and Catalani.  The District [entry level] Court granted a Motion for Summary Judgment for the City of Euclid, which dismissed all of the claims.  Mr. Stewart’s estate appealed to the Sixth Circuit which held upheld the dismissal of the federal claims under the doctrine of Qualified Immunity but sent the state claims back to the District Court to be litigated.  The court stated “[A] reasonable jury could find facts showing Stewart did not pose an immediate danger of serious physical harm and thus the use of deadly force was unreasonable.”

Information for this article was obtained from: Mary Stewart as Administrator of the Estate of Luke O. Stewart, Sr., Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant v. City of Euclid; Matthew Rhodes, Euclid Police Officer, No. 18-3767, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

Lessons Learned:

  1. This incident began with a tactical error by the officer. The officer got inside of the passenger door to push the suspect out of the driver’s door.  His body was so far inside that when the suspect WHO REPEATEDLY FAILED TO OBEY LAWFUL ORDERS, abruptly drove away.  Once the officer was inside the car with what had appeared to be an impaired driver the options for the officer were limited.  Consequently, the lesson is not to get in a vehicle with a suspect.  I make this statement as a veteran who as a patrol officer got in to two moving cars with suspects and … I was wrong.  I am very fortunate that I did not get hurt or have to use serious force to extricate myself.  What is ignored by the courts, media and public commentators is that lack of compliance by the suspect(s) is not mentioned.  This does not absolve law enforcement from their reactions but nearly EVERY appellate decision involves a non-compliant suspect.
  1. The Sixth Circuit focused on Mr. Stewart’s low speed while the officer was inside the Honda Accord. Because he was not driving recklessly the officer was not in serious  Ultimately the Federal District Court will decide if the officer was in such great danger that deadly force was reasonable.
  1. The case is not clear how close the cruisers parked to Mr. Stewart’s car but based on the limited text in the case it appears that the cruisers were not touching the suspect’s vehicle on both the rear and front bumpers. If the cruisers had the vehicle completely pinned it may have delayed Mr. Stewart from fleeing in the manner he did.  Assure that when a suspect is passed out in a vehicle that cruisers are tight against the bumpers so the suspect cannot flee.  This presumes that law enforcement would have enough Reasonable Suspicion to detain the suspect at the outset of the contact.
  1. This case was a 2-1 decision. The dissenter Judge Bernice Bouie Donald, a President Barack Obama appointee, did not concur that the federal claim of excessive force should have been dismissed.  Rather, she held “We have new names today: George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others. The world knows why they died. The same seeds whose bitter fruit killed Leroy Hughes killed them too. And on March 13, 2017, in Euclid, Ohio, they killed Luke Stewart. That the seeds of these senseless killings are systemic should not absolve the shooters. Our system of justice bestows upon police great powers and a sacred trust. We rightly protect police from penalties that otherwise would follow from poor conduct when officers act with reason. But when officers fail to act with reason, when they are motivated by impulses that spring from dark corners of the psyche or simply fail implicitly to acknowledge the humanity of the people before them, they violate our sacred trust. And then the same system that empowers and protects police must, if it is to function properly, if it is to be worthy of recognition as a system of justice, strip those powers and protections away. Luke Stewart should be alive today. He was unarmed, unsuspected of committing a serious felony, and behind the wheel of a stationary vehicle when Rhodes opened fire into his torso, chest, neck, and wrist. Qualified immunity should not shield Rhodes from the consequences of that unreasonable decision.”  As law enforcement officers we must be cognizant of how incidents across this country are going to affect our decisions in our locale.

Does your agency train on Use of Force?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.