LYNCHBURG, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia man who fled from police on horseback through downtown Lynchburg in 2021 was tased and eventually run over by an out-of-control police cruiser. Now, he wants $5 million from the officers involved.

What Happened That Night

Steve Lewis Rucker, Jr, of Amherst County, was wanted for violation of a protective order — charges which were dropped by prosecutors after his flight from police — and was fleeing Amherst authorities when he rode on horseback across the James River and into downtown Lynchburg.

What Rucker, Officer Zachary Miller and Officer Michael Johnson agree on is this: that on the night of March 20, 2021, Rucker fled from police on horseback, was tased at least once by officers, eventually fell from his horse and was run over by Johnson (a third officer, Jonathan Farrar, was initially named in the suit but has since been dropped from litigation).

This map shows the approximate route of Rucker’s flight through downtown Lynchburg in March 2021. (Map: Jakob Cordes/WRIC)

According to Rucker, Lynchburg police first encountered him outside of the Holiday Inn on Main Street. Rucker fled on Main Street, with one officer, who was not named in the case, allegedly calling in on the radio to say, “He’s not stopping. We’re in pursuit of a horse.”

Farrar was the first to fire his taser at Rucker, with bodycam stills from that night showing him firing — and missing — as he chased Rucker on foot.

After turning and fleeing into a suburban area, officers again caught up with Rucker, with Miller deploying his taser against him.

Officer Zachary Miller tases Steve Rucker as he flees on horseback. (Photo from court records)

Rucker then rode another few blocks before falling from his horse. That’s where his and the officers’ stories diverge.

Rucker claimed that Johnson arrived on the scene after he had already fallen from his horse and was lying on the ground. He writes that Johnson exited his cruiser without taking it out of drive or activating the emergency brake, at which point the car rolled into a nearby retaining wall.

Pointing to bodycam and dashcam footage, Rucker then said that Johnson leapt back into the car, turned it in Rucker’s direction and hit the accelerator, striking Rucker at speed.

A sequence of stills from the dashcam of another police cruiser shows Johnson’s runaway cruiser striking Rucker. (Photos from court records)

Johnson’s version of events differs slightly from Rucker’s. He admitted that he lost control of the cruiser after exiting it without placing it in park, but claimed that it was originally headed towards another officer, and that the reason he struck the wall was that he swerved to avoid him.

He then said he did his best to avoid Rucker, but nevertheless struck him. He implicitly denied Rucker’s allegation that he accelerated — whether deliberately or accidentally — before striking him.

Who Should Pay?

Rucker claimed that in the wake of the incident, he was left with a “laceration of his liver with
hemorrhaging, pulmonary contusion, multiple rib fractures, concussion, nasal fracture, avulsion
of his left ear, and a right shoulder sprain/strain.”

Rucker is seeking $5 million in compensatory damages as well as $350,000 in punitive damages.

The lawsuit alleges that both Johnson and Miller were grossly negligent and that Miller, who tased Rucker, committed battery and violated his constitutional rights.

Key to the latter allegation is the fact that the warrant for Rucker did not require him to be arrested — it was simply an order for him to appear in court at a certain date. Normally, it would have required police only to serve the warrant and then allow Rucker to go about his day.

But, of course, Rucker refused to be served, leading police on a multi-county horseback chase.

“There was no then-present exigency that was sufficiently dangerous to justify the use of
a taser against an individual riding on horseback, merely to serve him with a permitted warrant,” Rucker wrote. “The use of force exhibited by Defendant Miller was objectively unreasonable and clearly excessive.”

While Johnson responded directly to the suit, Miller responded by motioning for dismissal, claiming that his actions were protected by qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects officers from civil suits if a “reasonable official” would not have known that the action was a violation of the victim’s rights.

Now, the parties await Judge Norman Moon’s decision on the motion to dismiss. If Rucker’s claims survive that hearing, the case will then move forward.