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A Court Could Rely On Some Of The Bodycam Footage And Audio To Decide A Motion For Summary Judgment
Corey Hughes was imprisoned for unlawful possession of a loaded firearm with a large capacity magazine. He jumped over a fence and escaped while serving on a highway work crew. Hughes was on the lam for over three weeks.
An agent for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Fugitive Apprehension team received a tip that Hughes may be hiding at his friend’s house. The agent and a team from the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department went to the property and Hughes’ friend exited, confirmed Hughes was inside and gave officers his house keys and permission to enter. The agent called members of the Stockton Police Department for backup. Officer Michael Rodriguez and police K-9 Cain, were among those responding from Stockton PD.
Hughes’s version of the facts differed from the bodycam and audio. Hughes claimed he repeatedly yelled loudly, “Hold on, I’m coming out!”. He claimed he walked towards the door with his hands up. According to Hughes, it was only after he peered around the corner with his hands up and made eye contact with Officer Rodriguez that the Officer released Cain and that Cain immediately attacked and caused Hughes to fall to the ground. Hughes further testified that the officers piled on top of him and Cain continued to bite him. Hughes said that after he was handcuffed, Cain continued to bite him and the officers punched him in the head and face for at least “two minutes, if not more”.
The bodycam footage differed from part of Hughes’ account. On the audio, Hughes does not make any reply after Officer Rodriguez shouts “Stockton P.D., come on out or you’re going to get bit by a police dog!”. Unlike Hughes’ testimony, the footage did not show Hughes standing in the hallway with his hands up. Officer Rodriguez admitted to punching Hughes in the head before he handcuffed Hughes because Hughes was grabbing Officer Rodriguez’s groin area, near his gun. Finally, the footage showed that no more than a single minute elapsed between when Cain attacked and when Hughes was taken into custody, which refuted Hughes’ testimony that he was beaten for two minutes or more. Officer Rodriguez’s bodycam suddenly turned off before Hughes was handcuffed, and did not capture any relevant footage thereafter.
Hughes sued all four arresting officers for excessive use of force. The officers moved for summary judgment to dismiss the case without a trial. The trial court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment on all counts. Relying on the bodycam footage, the trial court determined that video and audio disputed all of Hughes testimony. Hughes appealed.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed three of the four officers. However, the court reversed with respect to Officer Rodriguez, finding there were still questions of fact that were not captured on any bodycam that a jury would have to decide.
When courts rule on a motion for summary judgment, they generally look at the facts in the light most favorable to the person who is opposing the motion. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that there is an exception to that general rule “[w]hen opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record so that no reasonable jury could believe it…” (Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007).) Relying on the Scott case, the Ninth Circuit confirmed for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment, that a district court may properly view the facts as depicted by bodycam footage and audio, to the extent the footage and audio blatantly contradict the testimonial evidence.
Applying the Scott case to these facts, the Ninth Circuit held that the bodycam footage did not blatantly contradict Hughes’ testimony as to when Hughes was punched. Hughes claims his beating occurred after he was handcuffed, but Officer Rodriguez’s bodycam turned off suddenly before Hughes was handcuffed and thus did not capture the subsequent events. The other officers on the scene were not facing the fray either, so their cameras also did not capture the events.
Because there was still a question of fact with respect to whether Officer Rodriguez punched Hughes after Hughes was handcuffed, the Ninth Circuit ordered the case to proceed to a jury trial.
Corey Hughes v. Michael Rodriguez, 2022 WL 1180766.
This case emphasizes the importance of bodycam footage in court. Bodycam video can decide motions for summary judgment and avoid costly litigation. LCW has a great deal of experience in both assisting departments to draft solid bodyworn camera policies and utilizing body-worn cameras in arbitrations and in court.