Court: Bus driver who allowed passengers to confront fare-jumper is immune from lawsuit

A Metro Transit bus driver, who kicked a man off his bus for not paying the fare, and then allowed several passengers to get off the bus to beat the man up — the fare-jumper had grabbed onto the bus’ bumper to prevent it from going anywhere — is immune from being sued, a federal appeals court judge panel has ruled in a decision filed today.

Bus driver Ahmad Aladin Hassan kicked Jonathan Alexander Truong off the Twin Cities bus in October 2007.

According to court documents, that’s when others on the bus wanted in on the dispute:

Hassan then grabbed Truong by the shoulders and pushed him out of the bus door, following with a kick toward Truong’s back. Truong states that he then jumped onto the front of the bus. Hassan then accelerated and braked the bus at least three times. A group of passengers began laughing, and several stood from their seats and walked toward the front of the bus. Then someone in the group asked Hassan if he could “whoop [Truong’s] ass?”

Hassan responded, “Don’t whoop his ass, but if you can drag him off of there, that would be great.” Hassan opened the bus door and allowed the group to exit the bus.

Truong states that the group grabbed him, threw him to the pavement, and punched him. After about 20 seconds, the group reentered the bus, but Truong again blocked it from moving by either jumping on the bus or in front of the bus. For a second time, Hassan allowed several passengers to exit the bus to confront Truong.

A district court threw the case out, declaring that Hassan, as a government employee, was entitled to qualified immunity.

Under the law, a government agent can only be guilty of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment if his/her actions are “conscience shocking.”

“To establish a violation of substantive due process rights by an executive official, a plaintiff must show (1) that the official violated one or more fundamental constitutionalrights, and (2) that the conduct of the executive official was shocking to the ‘contemporary conscience,’” the court said.

Hassan’s actions were not, the court ruled (See ruling).

Hassan was required to make instant judgments about how to handle a passenger who he knew to ride the bus without paying, refused to exit the bus, and who, after Hassan removed him from the bus, responded by jumping onto the front of the bus as it attempted to drive away. Hassan had to respond quickly to the changing circumstances of his encounter with Truong. Calm and reflective deliberations about his actions during this nine-minute encounter were not practical, thus we agree with the district court’s application of the intent-to-harm standard.

Hassan committed three distinct actions against Truong: (1) grabbing Truong by his shoulders and pushing him off of the bus, followed by a kick in Truong’s direction that may have made contact with Truong’s back, (2) starting and stopping the bus in an effort to knock Truong from the front of the bus, and (3) allowing the group of passengers to exit the bus in order to confront Truong and to remove him from the front of the bus. To reach the level of a constitutional violation, we must find as a matter of law that Hassan’s actions were “inspired by malice or sadism.”

Upon reviewing the tape of the incident, it is clear Hassan’s objective in all of his actions was to remove Truong from the bus and to continue driving his route. He was not acting in a manner to maliciously or sadistically cause Truong physical harm, and Hassan’s actions were related to his legitimate responsibilities of driving the bus.

While with time to deliberate, Hassan ould have perhaps developed and selected other options in interacting with Truong, we conclude that Truong has failed to show that Hassan’s actions amounted to a substantive due process violation.

(h/t: Brian Bakst)