Monday, June 22, 2020
Qualified Immunity Properly Denied to Officers Who Caused Death
Panel Says, Viewing Evidence in Favor of Plaintiffs, Reasonable Jury Could Find Excessive Force Used in Subduing Man Who Was Pursued by Police After Determining He Had Expired Car Registration
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a denial of qualified immunity to three police officers who spotted a man leaving a friend’s house, ran a check, tried to stop him for driving with an expired car registration, followed him as he circled back toward the house he had existed minutes earlier, chased after him as he ran into the kitchen, and applied a hold that caused his death.
A memorandum opinion, filed Thursday, affirms a March 8, 2019 order by District Court Judge Richard G. Seeborg for the Northern District of California partially denying summary judgment to Ernesto Mejia, Jason Waite, Willie Glasper, Gabriel Palma, Jonathan Elmore, and Patrick Berhan, members of the police department in the City of Pittsburg in Contra Costa County. The decision comes in a civil rights action brought by the family of Humberto Martinez, whose death occurred on July 26, 2016 after a carotid restraint was used on him.
His gasping to breathe is audible on the bodycam recording.
The Pittsburg City Council has banned the use of a carotid hold, which is applied to the neck, where the carotid arteries are located, restricting the flow of blood to the brain and causing unconsciousness. The city lawmaking body acted on June 9 not in response to Martinez’s death, but that of George Floyd who was killed May 25 by Minneapolis police, sparking nationwide demonstrations.
Excessive Force Alleged
Seeborg granted summary judgment as to the defendants on some claims—but not the claim that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He wrote:
“Considering the record as a whole, a fact-finder could reasonably conclude based on Martinez’s level of resistance, the rather minor nature of the underlying offense, and the overall circumstances of the struggle, that the officers’ use of force was excessive.”
He went on to say:
“A reasonable jury could conclude that, although he resisted arrest, Martinez did not deliberately strike the arresting officers, yet the officers delivered strikes that broke sixteen ribs and deployed a prohibited choke hold that crushed the cartilage in his neck resulting in his death. Accepting these facts as true, and taking into account the relatively minor underlying offense, no reasonable officer would believe this use of force complied with the Fourth Amendment.”
Mejia, Waite, and Glasper were in the patrol car that followed Martinez; the other defendants came to their assistance after Martinez ran into the house. Seeborg said in his ruling that a reasonable jury could find that each defendant was an “integral participant,” responsible for actions of the others, explaining:
“All the officers named in this suit were actively involved in the struggle to restrain Martinez. The undisputed facts show that each of the named officers struck, tased, or otherwise attempted to restrain Martinez during the confrontation. There is evidence that even Officer Waite, who was arguably the least involved in the scuffle, helped restrain Martinez’s arms while the other officers delivered strikes and, in the case of Officer Mejia, applied an alleged choke hold.”
“The Pittsburg Defendants’ argument that ‘each Defendant Officer dealt with [Martinez’s] physical resistance independently of their fellow officers’ actions and at different times’ is unpersuasive. The entire struggle lasted approximately two and a half minutes and body camera footage shows that the officers’ involvement overlapped substantially. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Martinez, a reasonable fact-finder could conclude each officer was an integral participant in the overall use of force. Accordingly, for the purpose of this summary judgment order, the named officers will each be considered integral participants in the altercation.”
Ninth Circuit Decision
In Thursday’s decision, a three-judge panel said that, viewing the evidence in a light favorable to the plaintiffs, as required where the defendants seek summary judgment, “a reasonable jury could conclude that the combined force used by the officers against Mr. Martinez was unreasonable.”
The panel added:
“In evaluating whether each officer violated Mr. Martinez’s Fourth Amendment rights, the officer’s actions should not be viewed in a vacuum….The facts… support the conclusion that each officer had ‘“some fundamental involvement in the conduct that allegedly caused the violation.’ ”
It declared qualified immunity to be unavailable because, viewing the facts in a manner favorable to the plaintiffs, “clearly established law put each officer on notice that his actions made him an integral participant in the use of excessive force against Mr. Martinez.”
The case is Martinez v. City of Pittsburg, 19-15550.
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