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With its decision in Baxter v. Roberts on November 30, 2022, the Eleventh Circuit provided another reminder of just how important body cameras have become for citizens and law enforcement officers alike by affirming summary judgment for a sheriff’s deputy in a §1983 civil rights action stemming from a traffic stop. The decision is available here. The decision is noteworthy for how it weighed conflicting evidence between an officer’s body camera video and the plaintiff’s contradictory testimony during litigation.
In Baxter, Michael Baxter was leaving a convenience store in northwest Florida in his truck when his driving caught the attention of Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy Trevor Lee, who was on patrol in his K9 unit squad car. Lee noticed Baxter’s truck was swerving and weaving within his own lane of traffic and made the decision to pull Baxter over after the truck continued to drive erratically. The body camera worn by Lee became active once he exited his squad car and approached Baxter’s truck. The visual and auditory events of the traffic stop were captured by the body camera from this point forward “in clear detail.”
The body camera captured Lee telling Baxter he was “just all over the road.” Without hesitation, Baxter responded “I was trying to make a phone call.” Lee goes on to describe the length of time he had observed Baxter driving erratically, to which Baxter simply responded: “Okay.” Other events would transpire during the traffic stop which would lead to Baxter’s arrest.
Baxter went on to file a civil rights complaint against Baxter and the Jackson County Sheriff, including a § 1983 claim against Lee for allegedly violating his Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully initiating the traffic stop—arguing Lee did not have reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. During discovery, Baxter testified during a deposition that he “wasn’t swerving and crossing lanes,” and he submitted a declaration stating that he had only “signaled and changed lanes to pass a vehicle traveling well below the speed limit” and then “signaled again and returned to [his] correct lane.”
In affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment based on Lee’s entitlement to qualified immunity, the Eleventh Circuit held that even though Baxter had testified at deposition and through a declaration that he did not swerve or drive erratically, the body camera video captured on scene was in direct conflict with his version of events. The Court was not convinced by Baxter’s explanation that his phone call statement to Lee was not actually in conflict with this later testimony that he was driving safely. “[Baxter] offers no colorable explanation as to how his ‘trying to make a phone call’ remark could have been anything other than an acknowledgment of and justification for his distracted driving[,]” therefore, there was no genuine issue dispute of material fact as to whether Lee violated Baxter’s Fourth Amendment rights in initiating the stop.
While it has long been the rule that courts should not adopt a party’s description of the facts at summary judgment if it is “blatantly contradicted” by the objective evidence in the record, see Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), the Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Baxter suggests that even testimony which undermines, but does not “blatantly” contradict, the objective evidence in the record is in danger of being rejected by courts in this circuit.