“We see a lot of misery”

Partlow v. Stadler, No. 14-1281 (8th Cir. Dec. 22, 2014).

The courts see a lot of misery, as this case illustrates.

Michael Partlow got drunk at a Jamestown, North Dakota bar, which he left at 2 am with his aunt and his aunt’s boyfriend. On the ride back to his apartment, he started talking about ending his life. Once he was home, he locked himself in his apartment. His aunt called 911. Through a window, she could see that he had a shotgun. A police officer showed up. Partlow told the officer to go away, that he didn’t want to see this. After other officers showed up, the door to the apartment building opened, displaying Partlow holding a shotgun in one hand and his aunt on his other. The officers later testified that Partlow chambered a round into the shotgun and raised the gun in their direction. The officers opened fire, hitting Partlow several times. Somehow he survived. He was later convicted of the crime of “terrorizing.”

Partlow then filed this civil rights action against the police officers. The district court declined to grant the officers summary judgment. According to the district court, a reasonable jury could find that the officers lacked probable cause to believe that Partlow posed a threat of serious physical harm. 

The Eighth Circuit now reverses. After leaving the apartment building, Partlow moved the shotgun in such a way that the officers thought he was aiming at them. Partlow claims he was simply trying to comply with their orders by turning to put the shotgun on the ground. The question, though, isn’t what Partlow subjectively intended—it’s what a reasonable officer could have concluded he intended at the time. The Eighth Circuit holds that a reasonable officer could have thought he was threatened. The officers therefore don’t have to face trial. 

Judge Bye dissents. He says that the court cannot, at this stage of the case, simply believe the officers’ testimony that they saw Partlow move the gun. That’s a fact that must either be found or not found by a jury.