Stoddard-Nunez v. City of Hayward: A New Challenge to Qualified Immunity

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

Paige Richardson, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

Shawn Joseph Jetmore Stoddard-Nunez (“Stoddard-Nunez”) was shot and killed by the defendant Police Officer Manuel Troche (“Troche”).[1] Stoddard-Nunez’s brother brought an excessive use of force claim and a wrongful death suit.[2] The District Court granted summary judgement to the defendants.[3] The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded on the basis of several genuine issues of material fact.[4] The Ninth Circuit also determined that Troche was not entitled to qualified immunity for his role in the death of Stoddard-Nunez.[5] The defendants have petitioned for certiorari to determine whether under the circumstances Troche would be entitled to qualified immunity.[6]

II. Facts

On March 3, 2013, Stoddard-Nunez and his brother, Jessie Lee Jetmore Stoddard-Nunez (“Plaintiff”), had a party at their apartment.[7] Stoddard-Nunez and his friend, Arthur Pakman (“Pakman”), drank alcohol at this party.[8] As the night went on, Pakman became belligerent and tried to fight the plaintiff.[9] As a result, Stoddard-Nunez left his apartment with Pakman, who drove them away.[10]

Troche was on duty in his cruiser the same night as the party.[11] Troche and his civilian ride-along passenger, Russell McLeod “(“McLeod”), witnessed Pakman’s vehicle swerving through the street, running red lights and stop signs.[12] Troche pursued Pakman, but never turned on his sirens or signaled he was in pursuit to dispatch.[13] Eventually, Pakman pulled into an empty business parking lot where Troche blocked Pakman’s car with his own cruiser.[14]

At this point, Troche called in a suspicious vehicle report to dispatch, exited the patrol cruiser, and drew his weapon.[15] Troche also claims that he identified himself as a police officer, but McLeod was unable to remember if Troche had done so.[16] Troche told Pakman to turn off the car and show his hands multiple times.[17] Pakman did not comply with the orders.[18] Troche testified that Stoddard-Nunez in the passenger seat started to reach under the dashboard, which led Troche to believe he was reaching for a weapon or hiding contraband.[19]

Pakman executed a three-point turn, facing the vehicle towards Troche, McLeod, and the cruiser.[20] McLeod testified that Troche yelled at Pakman once again to turn the car off;[21] however, Pakman accelerated in the direction of the cruiser.[22] There was some differing testimony as to whether Pakman swerved to aim the car at the area where Troche and McLeod were standing,[23] but evidence suggests that Pakman drove his car towards the passenger side of the cruiser, leaving a large gash on the side of the cruiser.[24]

As Pakman approached Troche and McLeod, Troche fired nine times into Pakman’s vehicle, killing Stoddard-Nunez.[25] Pakman was not hit and continued to drive away from the scene until he was eventually involved in a crash.[26]

III. Procedural History

The plaintiff brought a wrongful death claim and an excessive use of force claim against the city and Troche.[27] The defendants filed a motion for summary judgement, which the District Court granted.[28] The plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and the District Court decision was reversed and remanded because there were genuine issues of material fact that precluded summary judgement. The court also determined that Troche was not entitled to qualified immunity.[29] The defendants have now petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.[30]

IV. Qualified Immunity

The issue presented to the Supreme Court is that of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects officers whose actions do not violate clearly established laws that a reasonable person would have known.[31] In cases of excessive force, the analysis for qualified immunity is fact-driven and done on a case-by-case basis.[32] Courts generally go through a two-step analysis to determine qualified immunity, although the first step is not strictly necessary.[33] First, the courts determine if there was a constitutional violation, and if so, the courts determine if that constitutional right was clearly established.[34]

The District Court argued that the plaintiff did not assert any violation of a constitutional right, and that even if he had, he had no evidence to prove that it was a clearly established right.[35] The District Court specifically noted the lack of authorities with similar fact patterns as a barrier to finding any right was clearly established.[36] On this basis, the District Court granted Troche qualified immunity.[37]

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, citing case law that clearly establishes “that deadly force may be used only if it is necessary to prevent the escape of a suspect and ‘the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.’”[38] Because the court also reversed the District Court’s holding for summary judgement, a reasonable jury could believe the plaintiff’s version of events in which Troche used unconstitutionally excessive force in killing Stoddard-Nunez.[39] On this basis, the Ninth Circuit held Troche was not entitled to qualified immunity.[40]

The issue for courts reviewing qualified immunity claims is that there is no bright line rule determining the use of deadly force.[41] The courts simply apply a reasonable test to the totality of the circumstances.[42] Some level of flexibility is necessary for claims that are distinctly fact-driven as Fourth Amendment excessive force claims are. However, this also leads to some confusion and differences in application across the circuits. For instance, the circuits have differing views on what constitutes the totality of the circumstances, resulting in significantly more narrow analyses in some courts.[43] By taking this case, the Supreme Court could reconcile the various differing analytical approaches.

V. Conclusion

Though the petition presents a necessarily narrow issue because of the fact-driven nature of excessive force analysis, qualified immunity for officers has been a topic of intense debate due to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the summer of 2020, the Supreme Court declined to hear several qualified immunity cases.[44] If the Court decides to hear this case it could determine where a relatively new Court stands on important criminal procedure issues. This case could also place the Supreme Court in the center of a serious social and political debate surrounding the rights of officers versus the rights of their victims.


[1] Stoddard-Nunez v. City of Hayward, 817 Fed.Appx. 375 (9th Cir. 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] James Romoser, 3D-printed firearms and liability for police shootings, SCOTUSblog: Petitions of the Week (Feb. 12, 2021), https://www.scotusblog.com/2021/02/3d-printed-firearms-and-liability-for-police-shootings/.

[7] Stoddard-Nunez v. City of Hayward, 2018 WL 3159618, at *1 (N.D.Cal. 2018).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at *2.

[15] Id. at *2.

[16] Id. at *3.

[17] Id. at *2.

[18] Id. at *2.

[19] Id. at *2.

[20] Id. at *3.

[21] Id. at *3.

[22] Id. at *3.

[23] Id. at *3.

[24] Id. at *3.

[25] Id. at *4.

[26] Id. at *4.

[27] Id. at *4.

[28] See, Id.

[29] See, Stoddard-Nunez, 817 Fed.Appx.

[30] Romoser, supra note 6.

[31] Stoddard-Nunez, 2018 WL 3159618, at *10.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Stoddard-Nunez, 817 Fed.Appx. at 378 (citing Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 3 (1985); see also Acosta v. City and County of San Francisco, 83 F.3d 1143 (9th Cir. 1996); Orn v. City of Tacoma, 949 F.3d 1167, 1178 (9th Cir. 2020).                                          

[39] Stoddard-Nunez, 817 Fed.Appx. at 378-79.

[40] Id. at 378.

[41] Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007).

[42]Id.

[43] William Heinke, Deadly Force: Differing Approaches to Arrestee Excessive Force Claims, 26 Review of Law and Social Justice 155 (2017).

[44] Hailey Fuchs, Qualified Immunity Protection for Police Emerges as Flash Point Amid Protests, NY Times (June 23, 2020),https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/us/politics/qualified-immunity.html.