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Hedgpeth v. Rahim

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 3, 2016

JONATHAN HEDGPETH, Plaintiff,
v.
AMMAR RAHIM, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.

         This story begins with Plaintiff Jonathan Hedgpeth strewn across the ground outside the Den of Thieves - an inauspiciously named bar in Washington's U Street corridor. He is bleeding from a gash along his forehead, his memory foggy. All he knows is that two police officers from the Metropolitan Police Department are now handcuffing his arms behind his back. After he is restrained, paramedics transport Hedgpeth to a nearby hospital where he stays overnight; he spends the next day in jail before being released without charges. Hedgpeth would later be diagnosed with memory loss and other post-concussive brain disorders. Since his police encounter, he has attempted to piece together the events of that night and now believes that in the course of arresting him, the officers used a takedown maneuver and rammed his head into a grated window. Once he identified those two policemen as Ammar Rahim and Matthew Rider, he filed this suit against them under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state common law.

         Defendants now seek summary judgment, principally asserting that they are entitled to qualified immunity for acting as reasonable police officers when arresting and using force against Plaintiff, which unfortunately resulted in unintended injuries. As they saw it, he was a loud, obnoxious, and noncompliant drunk, and they had reason to believe he had been traversing the block, punching strangers. Hedgpeth counters that he may have been obstinate, but in no way opened himself up to what he believes was an act of gratuitous violence. He, of course, does not remember any of what happened. Luckily for the Court, the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses pierces the thick fog of Plaintiff's amnesia. Faced with a clearer picture now that Defendants did not behave so unreasonably that they could be liable individually for this incident, the Court grants their Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Background

         When perusing the record, the Court, as it must, views the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Ye t this noble-sounding standard bumps up against the stark reality that a record like this one has certain predictable gaps. Where a plaintiff's memory ordinarily breathes life into a narrative, alas, this Plaintiff has no recollection. See ECF No. 37, Exh. 3 (Psychiatric Examination by Dr. Gerald Shiener) at 2. Fortunately for Hedgpeth, other witnesses were present to observe the events, and the Court credits their testimony where it aids Plaintiff.

         On the evening of March 2, 2015, Hedgpeth, a 37-year-old white male, was out and about on U Street in Washington's northwest quadrant. The evening had been going well so far, as he had been enjoying himself at a local wine tasting. See Shiener Exam at 1; ECF No. 32, Exh. 5 (Expert Report of Luca Zarwell). He left that event alone and then stopped by the downstairs bar of Marvin, a neighborhood restaurant he frequented often. See ECF No. 40, Exh. 14 (Deposition of Tyler Webb) at 10:12-21. There, he had a few drinks and began engaging with the bartender and other patrons. Id. at 11:12-16; see Shiener Exam at 1. Although it was not outwardly obvious whether Hedgpeth was thoroughly intoxicated by that time, the floor manager of Marvin - Tyler Webb - later recalled that he was “being loud and being like aggressive and saying racially inappropriate things, ” enough so that customers began inching away from him at the bar. See Webb Dep. at 10:21-11:16, 12:15-13:18. Over the course of thirty to forty-five minutes, one customer complained about his behavior and Webb had to speak with him twice about “keep[ing] his voice down.” Id. at 12:3-4, 12:15-13:7, 13:21-14:1. Perhaps realizing he had become an unwelcome gadfly downstairs, Hedgpeth relocated to Marvin's upstairs club. Id. at 12:4-7. That proved unsuccessful, as he was swiftly booted from there. Id. at 14:4-6.

         Some libertines find sobriety after a stroll in the brisk night air. But, in this case, two police officers found Hedgpeth first. Rahim and Rider were in the area attending to a homeless man when they heard a loud voice. See ECF No. 32, Exh. 1 (Deposition of Ammar Rahim) at 45:15-46:5; ECF No. 43, Exh. 2 (Deposition of Matthew Rider) at 69:3-20. It was Hedgpeth. The officers watched him walk toward them, alongside a “tall black male”; Plaintiff pushed him, and the man pushed back. See Rahim Dep. at 46:2-49:11, 52:2-9. The man then headed toward the officers, proclaiming: “[H]ey did you see that? This guy just pushed me.” Id. at 53:5; see Rider Dep. at 70:15-71:4. The officers told the tall black gentleman to hold fast and wait, as they would approach his assailant. See Rahim Dep. at 56:9-16.

         Hedgpeth, meanwhile, had bumped into a former coworker, Marcus Lee. See ECF No. 37, Exh. 4 (Deposition of Marcus Lee) at 6:4-12. Lee was then outside the Den of Thieves - an establishment right next door to Marvin - where he had left his sunglasses the prior night. Id. at 8:1-7; Webb Dep. at 7:14-16. Hedgpeth approached him from behind and gave him a friendly “buddy punch” on the shoulder. See Lee Dep. at 8:12-13. Although the two were once coworkers, they had not seen each other for a few years. Id. at 6:4-17. Naturally, the pair started to catch up - a brief exchange that Lee later gauged as “coherent.” Id. at 8:14-16, 65:1.

         That reunion was cut short. Although it is not clear from the record how much time it took for Rahim and Rider to wrap up with the homeless man and pursue Hedgpeth, it apparently was not long. “All of a sudden, ” they approached from his rear and began interrogating the pair of friends. Id. at 8:17-19. The officers stated, “[W]e've got reports of somebody hitting people, up and down the street that we were on.” Id. at 10:16-18; see id. at 9:11-13, 14:14-15, 49:15-17. They expressed curiosity as to where Plaintiff had been that night. Id. at 49:12-13. Thinking that Hedgpeth was somehow soon to get in trouble for the friendly fist greeting moments earlier, Lee explained, “[N]o, no, he's a friend of mine, we're just talking, it's not what you think.” Id. at 9:14-16. Uninterested, the officers dismissed Lee's suggestion and ushered him to the side, directing their focus on Hedgpeth instead. Id. at 9:13-21.

         Yet when they repeatedly asked Hedgpeth for his name, he would not answer them. Id. at 20:4-6, 49:19-20. Rahim and Rider then broke off and chatted amongst themselves, coming to the conclusion that a different approach was warranted. “Have you been drinking tonight, ” they probed; “I know you've been drinking.” Id. at 14:17-20, 49:20-50. Plaintiff would not give them an answer to this either. In contrast to his one-on-one with Lee, however, Hedgpeth's demeanor grew less sociable. He began telling the police that “he didn't do anything, ” speaking in slurred speech and acting like he was drunk. Id. at 71:19-72:1; see id. at 44:18-20, 75:6-12; Rider Dep. at 169:2-4. Lee suspected, however - because Hedgpeth covertly winked to the side - that he was “faking” it. See Lee Dep. at 64:21-65:5, 68:13-69:2, 72:15-73:8.

         Was Hedgpeth drunk or simply tipsy? It's hard to say. Lee testified that Hedgpeth was not wavering or unable to stand up. Id. at 65:17-66:3. A barely audible cellphone video filmed by Lee during the encounter also shows Plaintiff steady with both feet firmly planted, without any significant teetering movements that one might associate with someone a few sheets to the wind. See ECF No. 41 (Pre-Arrest Video). After seven seconds of Hedgpeth's standing there, the video ends. Rahim and Rider recounted, conversely, that he had been trying to (but could not) keep his balance. See Rahim Dep. at 53:16-18; Rider Dep. at 169:2-5. Defendants' expert, after scanning Plaintiff's later hospital records that recorded his blood-alcohol content, likewise determined that he had the equivalent of fourteen alcoholic beverages in his system at the time. See Zarwell, ¶ 10. Even so, intoxication is tricky: Alcohol affects individuals differently, and even an inebriate can feign sobriety for a short while and vice versa.

         No matter. If Plaintiff was mimicking a drunkard, he apparently did so all too well. Rider told Lee that they thought Hedgpeth was drunk and asked if Lee would be willing to take his friend home. See Lee Dep. at 14:22-15:2, 50:4-7. Lee responded that although he was keen on helping, Hedgpeth could be “hard to handle.” Id. at 15:2-4, 50:7-9.

         With that, Defendants had enough of their fruitless back and forth with the two old comrades. Rahim took out his handcuffs and told Hedgpeth that they were arresting him. Id. at 50:21-51:1. Once Plaintiff realized he was jail bound, he began yelling at the top of his lungs. Id. at 47:20-48:4, 52:19-53:7; see Rider Dep. at 95:1 (recounting that he was screaming at the sky “[l]ike the Hulk”). He howled the same three phrases again and again - “no”; “let me go”; “I didn't do anything” - perhaps laced with other profanities. See Lee Dep. at 53:5-7, 75:19-76:2; Rahim Dep. at 75:17-78:1. Some people in the vicinity began slowing down and paying attention. See Lee Dep. at 53:12-14. Next door at Marvin, Webb sat by the window, rubbernecking to watch the incident unfold. See Webb Dep. at 14:21-15:4.

         Somewhere, something went awry. The record here is hazy, but however Hedgpeth ended up on the cement, it happened fast. Id. at 16:16-17 (“I looked away for one second and the next thing I know he's on the ground.”); Rahim Dep. at 89:14-15 (“It happened so fast.”).

         To catch a breath, let's freeze the scene right before the incident and pause to look around. At this moment, a passerby with his head turned would see Hedgpeth still standing on the sidewalk with his back facing the Den of Thieves. See Pre-Arrest Video; Rahim Dep. at 87:4-6. That establishment has a large, nearly floor-to-ceiling window as its storefront. See ECF No. 37, Exh. 1 (Incident Pictures) at 9-10. A matte-black metal grating covers the glass, creating a windowpane-like effect; the horizontal bars are roughly one-and-a-half feet apart, and the vertical bars are separated by about a foot. Near the ground - say, two feet above it - the glass stops. Below the glass, a short wall borders the bottom of the window forming a thin ledge, much like a picture frame. As for Rahim, a bystander would see him preparing to arrest Hedgpeth by approaching from behind. See Lee Dep. at 18:10-12.

         What happened next is a toss-up. Various eyewitness accounts differ as to whether Hedgpeth was in motion. Perched at his window, Webb recalled how Plaintiff was either in the act of “lunging or wavering back and forth because he was intoxicated or maybe trying to escape talking to the police.” Webb Dep. at 16:11-15. Lee recounted, however, that he never saw any lunging motions or attempts to flee. See Lee Dep. at 18:8-10, 36:15-17. Rahim corroborated that Plaintiff was not trying to flee and does not recall him lunging. See Rahim Dep. at 54:3-7, 73:14-74:15. Rider admitted to not paying much attention. His eyes were instead trained on Hedgpeth's driver's license while he attempted to take a picture of it. See Rider Dep. at 99:4-105:1. Contradicting his own officers' accounts, the police sergeant who later arrived on the scene recalled that the police duo informed him that Hedgpeth had tried to lunge at Rider. See ECF No. 39, Exh. 12 (Deposition of Stephen Keirn) at 59:11-13.

         Also subject to debate are Plaintiff's hand gestures. Webb saw that, moments before Hedgpeth went down, “his fists were clenched.” Webb Dep. at 16:15-16. Rahim likewise testified at length about how Plaintiff had clenched his fists with his fingers facing forward and his arms pinned by his side. See Rahim Dep. at 67:16-70:15; Rider Dep. at 137:1-3, 138:12-15. Lee, however, begged to differ: Hedgpeth never did ball his fists up. See Lee Dep. at 36:9-14.

         The flickering details of these few moments are no doubt lost. Although judges might be umpires, the record does not carry with it all the technological features of present-day multiple-angle instant replay. So let's unfreeze and march forward. After deciding to make an arrest, Rahim approached Plaintiff from behind and grabbed his left arm, preparing to handcuff his wrist. See Lee Dep. at 51:1-2. The officer repeatedly commanded Hedgpeth to surrender his other arm. Id. at 51:2-4. This went nowhere, as Hedgpeth refused. Id. at 51:4-7. Done with asking, Rahim then drove his knee forward and cut out Hedgpeth's legs from underneath him to take him down to the ground. Id. at 51:8-14, 58:19-59:3. In the process, Hedgpeth fell forward and spun to his left: His head flew into the window's grating or ledge, and he collapsed onto the cement sidewalk. Id. As this all unfolded, Lee texted his wife to explain that the police slammed Hedgpeth into the window after he refused to place his arms behind his back. Id. at 70:20-71:3. Later when asked, Lee clarified that Rahim initiated a “take-down maneuver” but that he did not think the officer specifically “meant for Jonathan to slam his head in to the side of the building.” Id. at 21:16-18, 22:17-22.

         The rest of the story is undisputed. Hedgpeth remained lying on the ground as the officers placed handcuffs on him. Id. at 52:8-10; Rahim Dep. at 90:9-11. The fall left a large gash over his left eye, and blood splattered all over the sidewalk. See Incident Pictures at 1-2, 6-8. Hedgpeth, unsurprisingly, continued to scream. See ECF No. 41 (Post-Arrest Video). Paramedics, who had been attending to the homeless man down the block, came and wrapped Plaintiff's head in gauze. See Rahim Dep. at 101:1-8. He was then taken to Howard University Hospital, where he was treated overnight and apparently received a number of stitches. See Shiener Exam at 2; Zarwell Report, ¶ 4; Incident Pictures at 11. The next morning, Hedgpeth was transported to a courthouse cellblock, where he was detained. See Shiener Exam at 2. The government sent him home that same day without bringing charges. Id.

         Defendants wrote the incident up as “Disorderly Affray.” See ECF No. 37, Exh. 6 (Metropolitan Police Department Report). In a lengthier examination-request form submitted to the hospital following the arrest, conversely, the officers noted that the charge was “SA/APO” - i.e., simple assault and assault on a police officer. See ECF No. 37, Exh. 7 (Request for Examination) at 1. That document also described: “Suspect fell into glass window as he was being turned away from officer. No use of force. Suspect is heavily intoxicated.” Id. at 2. Indeed, Rahim has since denied using any substantial amount of force. He testified at a deposition only that he “tried to grab [Hedgpeth's] shoulder or arm” to handcuff him, but that the arrestee pulled away and fell on his own accord. See Rahim Dep. at 82:2-21. The officer admits only to putting “part of [his] fingers” on Hedgpeth. Id. at 83:22-85:12.

         A month after the incident, a doctor's office at George Washington University examined Plaintiff. The doctor reported “recurrent headaches, vertigo after a concussion that is consistent with post-concussive syndrome.” ECF No. 37, Exh. 2 (George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates Report). A much later psychiatric examination added “post-traumatic stress disorder” to this list. See Sheiner Exam at 6-7.

         On July 30, 2015, Hedgpeth brought this suit against Rahim and Rider. In his Complaint, he lodged one cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint), ¶¶ 32-43. Namely, he claimed Defendants had arrested him falsely and wielded excessive force in doing so. His other two counts were brought under state law - for assault and battery and, again, for false arrest. Id., ¶¶ 44-52.

         After the parties completed discovery, Rahim and Rider filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment, primarily seeking qualified immunity on Count One for their actions, which ...


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