Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion from Nov. 9

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Surat v. Klamser

In April 2017, Michaella Surat was celebrating her birthday at a bar in Fort Collins, Colorado. At approximately 11:12 p.m., two Fort Collins police officers, Garrett Pastor and Randall Klamser, were dispatched to the bar in response to a reported disturbance involving Surat’s then-boyfriend, Mitchell Waltz. While Pastor spoke with Waltz, Klamser spoke with the bar’s bouncer. Surat attempted to exit the bar and “lightly bump[ed]” Klamser as she walked past him, according to court records. 

Surat approached Waltz and tried to walk away from the scene with him. Upon learning from the bouncer that Waltz was involved in the disturbance, Klamser yelled to Pastor that Waltz wasn’t free to go. Pastor began interviewing Waltz and Surat tried to walk toward Waltz.

Klamser, “standing six feet tall and weighing approximately 200 pounds,” blocked the 115-pound Surat from obstructing Pastor’s interview. He arrested Surat and held her by her wrist. In response, Surat “attempted to pry [Klamser’s] fingers off of her arm and pawed at [his] arms.” Klamser then used a takedown maneuver on Surat who “sustained a concussion, cervical spine strain, contusions to her face, and bruising on her arms, wrists, knees, and legs.” 

After the incident, Surat was charged with obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest. She pleaded not guilty to both charges and asserted a theory of self-defense, arguing she used physical force against Klamser to defend herself “from what a reasonable person would believe to be the use . . . of unlawful physical force.” The jury rejected her theory of self-defense and convicted her of both charges.

Surat appealed, alleging Klamser violated her right to be free from excessive force during her arrest. Klamser moved to dismiss based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Heck v. Humphrey, arguing Surat’s claim was barred by her underlying convictions. The district court granted Klamser’s motion in part, holding Heck didn’t bar Surat’s claim that Klamser used excessive force to overcome her resistance when he slammed her face-first into the ground.

Klamser then moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. But the district court denied his motion, concluding a reasonable jury could have found Klamser used excessive force to overcome Surat’s resistance to arrest. Additionally, the district court determined Klamser’s force violated clearly established law. 

In this interlocutory appeal from the denial of summary judgment, Klamser asserted the district court erred because his use of force was reasonable and, alternatively, because the law didn’t clearly establish his action during the arrest violated the Fourth Amendment.

Although the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that Klamser’s use of force violated the Fourth Amendment, it disagreed about clearly established law. The appeals court determined that laws in place at the time of the incident would have put a reasonable officer on notice that his conduct was unlawful. 

The 10th Circuit denied Surat’s motion to dismiss the appeal and determined the district court correctly ruled Klamser violated Surat’s constitutional rights, but found the district court erred in denying Klamser qualified immunity because that right wasn’t clearly established at the time of the incident. It reversed the district court’s denial of Klamser’s motion for summary judgment. 

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