Applying pressure after subject is subdued in jail which resulted in death


By October 2017, Kelli Page had spent several months in the Coryell County jail awaiting trial. She was a 46-year-old woman, who stood 5’6” and weighed 220 pounds. She had serious mental health challenges as well as physical ailments. On the morning of October 8, Page woke up around 7:30 a.m. What happened for the next hour is largely undisputed.

Around 7:50, Page began tapping her hairbrush on the cell door, and at one point she knocked her hip against the door. Steven Lovelady and Wesley Pelfrey—the two primary jailers on duty—did not want the noise to disrupt others on the hall. At 8:13, Pelfrey approached the door to Page’s cell and talked to her for about ten minutes. During this discussion, Page allegedly told Pelfrey that she was going to “stab him in the eye with a hairbrush.”

After Pelfrey left, Page did nothing for a while and then, at 8:29, began tapping on the door again.
Lovelady decided to enter Page’s cell to try and stop the tapping. He opened the food slot in the door and asked Page to turn around to be handcuffed. When she did not obey, Lovelady used pepper spray. The spray caused Page to retreat towards the far wall as Lovelady and Pelfrey entered the cell right at 8:30.

While Page remained at the back of her cell facing away from the jailers, Lovelady sprayed Page’s face with pepper spray three more times. Page tried to shield her face with a sheet, all the while holding onto the hairbrush. Lovelady then stepped towards Page (preparing to handcuff her) as she remained standing with her back towards the officers.

What happened next—a span of a few minutes that ended in Page’s death—is hotly disputed. The plaintiffs say Lovelady slammed Page to the floor. Lovelady testified that he attempted to turn her around and she suddenly let go of the sink, which caused her to fall to the floor. Once Page ended up on the floor, a struggle ensued as the jailers tried to handcuff Page. The parties dispute numerous details about that struggle. Because our assessment of what a jury could conclude about these moments is a focus of the legal analysis that follows, we will not recite those facts here.

The struggle resulted in Page lying flat on her stomach with her hands handcuffed behind her back, and Lovelady, who weighed 230 pounds, sitting atop Page with his knee on her back. Pelfrey, who weighed 390 pounds, pressed his forearm against her neck. Page was held face down in this manner for over two minutes. The jailers rolled Page over to find her unresponsive. They attempted to administer CPR until relieved by the deputy sheriff. Soon after, Page was declared dead.

Page’s parents filed this § 1983 suit against the county, Lovelady, and Pelfrey. At summary judgment, the district court held that the jailers’ use of force was reasonable.


A. Video

The U.S. Supreme Court in Kingsley said that force against a pretrial detainee is excessive and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment when the force was objectively unreasonable. The following factors bear on the reasonableness inquiry:

The relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used;
The extent of the plaintiff’s injury;
Any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force;
The severity of the security problem at issue;
The threat reasonably perceived by the officer;
and Whether the plaintiff was actively resisting.

The district court concluded that all of the factors except the extent of the injury favored the jailers.

But the district court’s view is not the only view a jury could take of the evidence. Construing the video in favor of the plaintiffs shows that a jury could reach different conclusions on a number of facts that impact the reasonableness calculus.

First, there are important factual disputes about how Page ended up on the floor. One reasonable interpretation of the video is that Lovelady grabbed Page’s wrist from behind, pulled her away from the wall, and pushed her onto the floor head first. Yet the district court failed to acknowledge the possibility that Lovelady threw Page to the floor—in fact, it never described how Page landed on the floor.

Second, there are disputes a jury would need to resolve about the force used during the attempt to handcuff Page. The court found that Page bit and kicked and tried to “grab Lovelady’s groin” while she struggled. The video is, however, at odds with the district court’s view of the force Lovelady used in response. The court mentioned that Lovelady struck Page twice in the abdomen with his knee but ignored three other instances of force by Lovelady that are visible on the video. He punched Page’s face with a closed fist while trying to regain control of the handcuffs. After this first punch, the jailers reclaimed the handcuffs and attempted to roll Page onto her stomach. Ten seconds after the jailers retrieved the handcuffs, Lovelady punched Page in the face again. And, twenty seconds after retrieving the handcuffs, while turning Page over, Lovelady punched Page in the face a third time.

Third, there are disputes about the force the jailers used during the final minutes of Page’s life when Lovelady was pressing his knee on her lower back. The district court concluded that the evidence indisputably showed that the jailer did not put any of his weight on her during this stage. In ruling at summary judgment, we must take the opposite view—that Pelfrey was pushing his elbow in to Page’s neck—because that is a reasonable conclusion from the video.

B. The severity of the security problem at issue and the level of threat reasonably perceived by the jailers

The initial threat perceived by the officers was Page’s tapping her hairbrush against the window and knocking her hips against the door of her cell. The factual dispute about whether the jailers threw Page to the floor or she fell determines whether they responded reasonably to the low security threat the noise from Page’s tapping her hairbrush posed at the outset of this incident.

The defendants also claim that when Page took Lovelady’s handcuffs, she created a renewed threat that justified more force. But that cannot explain the continued application of force for minutes after the jailers repossessed the handcuffs. Even after Lovelady had the handcuffs back, he punched Page in the face several more times, and the lethal use of force by Pelfrey (putting pressure on Page’s neck) begins a full thirty seconds after Lovelady regained the handcuffs.

The district court noted that the jailers may have believed Page to be a security threat because of an episode a day earlier when Page sprayed Lovelady with cleaning solution through the slot in her door while he collected the lunch trays. But like any threat posed by Page’s noise disruption or her grabbing the handcuffs, the perceived threat caused by the events of the day before cannot justify force beyond the time when the threat subsided.

C. Whether the plaintiff was actively resisting

The defendants rely heavily on Page’s resistance—namely her tapping on the door after the jailers asked her to stop, her refusing to be handcuffed, and her struggling after the jailers had pinned her to the floor. To be sure, Page resisted once she was on the floor, including taking the handcuffs, kicking Lovelady a few times, and biting him once.

But the jailers used force both before any of this active resistance began and for minutes after it ceased. Because Page did not actively resist at these critical stages of the encounter, this factor does not favor the jailers as much as the district court believed. See Joseph (force must be reduced once a suspect has been subdued).

D. The relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used

Was the amount of force proportional to the need for force? Page had not engaged in any physical resistance before Lovelady took her to the floor. So, it is hard to justify that use of force. Once Page was on the floor with a jailer on top of her, she did grab the handcuffs and respond with kicks and a bite when Lovelady tried to retrieve them.

Some force was certainly warranted to retrieve the handcuffs. But once that was accomplished and the jailers were flipping Page back over onto her stomach, Lovelady punched her in the face two more times. Then even after Page was lying on her stomach handcuffed, the jailers continued to apply weight to Page’s neck, back, and legs for more than two minutes despite facing no resistance or threat from her.

E. Qualified Immunity

The jailers, however, can assert qualified immunity. They are liable for unlawful conduct only if their actions violated clearly established constitutional rights.

It is a close call whether it is clearly established that throwing Page to the ground was an excessive response to her tapping the hairbrush on the cell door. But given that the jailers did first seek compliance through verbal commands, we do not see the notice of unlawfulness that qualified immunity requires.

And as we have noted, when Page took the handcuffs, it was not excessive for the jailers to try and overcome her resistance and subdue her. The knee strikes and punches may have crossed the line of excessiveness but—given the need to subdue Page at this juncture—not clearly so. The jailers thus cannot be liable for the early stage of the incident.

But a jury’s finding that the jailers continued to apply pressure to Page’s neck, back, and legs for more than two minutes after she was subdued—Page at this point in the encounter was lying prone on her stomach with her hands handcuffed behind her back—would establish a violation of clearly established law. See Timpa, which explains that qualified immunity may provide a defense at the early stages of an encounter but not later stages when the continued use of force violates clearly established law.

We REVERSE the grant of summary judgment and REMAND for further proceedings.