LYNCHBURG, Va. (WRIC) — A federal judge denied a Lynchburg police officer’s effort to throw out a $5 million lawsuit accusing him of excessive force from a man who was tased while on horseback and run over by police during a chase in 2021.
According to court filings, Lynchburg authorities were notified on March 20, 2021, of a man on horseback heading into the city from Amherst County with an outstanding warrant for an alleged protective order violation.
The man on the horse, Steve Rucker, refused to stop to be served the warrant, which was for a misdemeanor that was eventually dropped and did not require him to be taken into custody, leading police on a chase through downtown Lynchburg.
Videos from that day shared with 8News show Lynchburg police tasing Rucker on the horse as he’s being slowly pursued by officers and then running him over after he fell off the horse.
Rucker filed a federal lawsuit against two Lynchburg police officers — Zachary Miller and Michael Johnson — seeking $5.35 million in damages, claiming excessive force and that he suffered a lacerated liver with hemorrhaging, a pulmonary contusion, multiple rib fractures, a concussion and other injuries.
Videos shed light on what happened on March 20, 2021
Rucker’s civil lawsuit claims he was already on horseback when the Amherst County emergency communications operator informed Lynchburg authorities he was riding into the city. A Lynchburg officer, the lawsuit states, saw Rucker on horseback in front of a hotel in the city before activating his emergency lights and giving “a quick siren whelp.”
Officers tried to get him to stop during the chase, according to court documents, with one telling Rucker, “We just have paperwork for you.” One officer who was on foot tried to use his taser to stop Rucker but missed. A few minutes later, court documents say Miller tased Rucker.
Video from Miller’s body camera shared by Rucker’s attorney shows Miller waiting for Rucker as the chase continues down a suburban street. Miller can be heard telling someone on his radio that he’s “out in front,” before a voice tells him to try to safely use his taser on Rucker if he can without hitting the horse.
Miller gets out of his vehicle as Rucker approaches, using his taser and saying on his radio that it was “successful” but that Rucker was not stopping. Court documents allege the horse then ran off at about 15 miles per hour until Rucker fell off “two blocks later.”
Dash camera video provided to 8News shows an officer in a patrol vehicle following Rucker down a suburban street with their lights and siren on before Rucker falls off the horse and onto the middle of an intersection.
Rucker can be seen trying to get up by moving to his knees, but he then quickly sits and lies on the street. The video then shows another police cruiser approach the intersection before hitting Rucker and then running him over as it turns left.
Someone can be heard screaming in the video afterward, and the footage shows the horse run off down the street and out of view. Rucker lies down motionless before moving slightly moments before the 38-second video ends.
In a court filing responding to Rucker’s lawsuit, Johnson admits that he got out of his patrol cruiser thinking he put it in park, but it was still moving so he got back in to avoid hitting another officer at the scene.
In the filing, Johnson said he turned the vehicle sharply to avoid the officer, but he then hit a retaining wall and was “put” in Rucker’s direction. He added that he “tried as hard as he could to maneuver his vehicle to avoid Rucker but the vehicle ended up hitting him.”
Rucker claimed Johnson hit the accelerator when he jumped back into the car, which Johnson denied in the court filing responding to the lawsuit.
In total, court documents state Rucker traveled “between ten and twenty-five miles per hour” and turned down about a dozen streets during the chase.
“I’m not going to comment on the specific allegations other than to say we believe when the court has all of the facts it will find that the officers acted reasonably when confronted with an apparently intoxicated person riding a horse in downtown Lynchburg,” Jim Guynn, the attorney for Miller and Johnson, wrote in an email to 8News.
The Lynchburg Police Department’s public information office did not answer calls or return two voicemail messages seeking comment.
The lawsuit moves forward
Rucker’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, accuses Miller and Johnson of being grossly negligent. It also alleges Miller committed battery and violated his constitutional rights by tasing Rucker.
In August, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon rejected Miller’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which argued Rucker’s allegations of excessive force and other claims were insufficient.
“Even a cursory review of the allegations compels the conclusion that Officer Miller’s decision to fire a taser at an individual riding horseback—one who was not wanted for any crime, was not suspected of any crime, but merely needed to be served with court papers—constituted excessive force,” Mark D. Dix, Rucker’s attorney, said in a statement on behalf of Rucker.
“This is precisely the kind of heavy-handed, unconstitutional law enforcement tactics that needs to stop, and we look forward to our day in court,” he added.
Miller also argued in his motion to dismiss that he is shielded from liability under qualified immunity, which is used to protect local officials, officers and others from civil lawsuits as long as their conduct doesn’t violate someone’s rights that a “reasonable official” would have known.
Judge Moon denied that argument, writing in his order that Rucker “sufficiently alleges a violation of a clearly established constitutional right,” but that Miller could raise qualified immunity again as the case moves forward.
Dix told 8News that the case has moved to its discovery phase, and a trial date has been set for April 2024.