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Barney Joe Donalson is a pastor at the New Beginnings Fellowship Church (NB), located in Houston, Texas. In 2017, NB purchased a property in Canton, Texas to use as an emergency shelter for hurricane victims or as a multipurpose house of worship with a sanctuary and housing for homeless persons. However, NB quickly encountered problems with the Canton municipal government who quickly filed suit seeking to enjoin NB from occupying the premises without complying with the relevant health and safety codes. On January 14, 2020, the court granted the injunction and ordered that NB, and Donalson personally, vacate the premises.
The same day the injunction was issued, Donalson went to the Van Zandt courthouse to try and stay the order. While Donalson spoke with the Court Coordinator, Deputy Erin McLeaish approached the pair and requested that Donalson lower his voice because court was in session. After Donalson explained that he sought an emergency stay and that he was told not to leave this courthouse until he had a ruling on it, McLeaish directed Donalson to sit in a chair several feet away.
Several minutes later, a second officer—Deputy Rule—approached Donalson while he sat down. Donalson explained to Rule that he sought an emergency stay, and McLeaish said the presiding judge on the case was not in the courthouse that day. In a slightly raised voice, Donalson disputed McLeaish’s explanation and requested to speak with another judge. In response, Rule advised Donalson that he “better calm it down because I will take you out of here.”
Then, Donalson picked up his cell phone from his lap, raised both hands, and began to hit himself in the head with his hands and phone. He yelled an expletive, began to writhe in his chair, and rocked himself back and forth which caused his head to connect with the wall behind him. McLeaish approached Donalson with her hands outstretched towards his arms but lowered, seemingly attempting to stop him from hitting himself. At this point, Donalson may have tried to bite McLeaish. Rule approached Donalson from his other side and similarly tried to hold down his arms.
Donalson continued to flail his arms and legs, resist the deputies, and eventually slid off his chair and threw himself to the ground. McLeaish moved to the ground and tried to restrain Donalson by placing her right knee onto Donalson’s back or side as she grabbed his left arm and brought it behind his back. Two other officers joined the scuffle to assist Rule and McLeaish, and the four officers struggled to handcuff Donalson. During the struggle, McLeaish continued to straddle Donalson’s legs to hold him down.
After approximately thirty seconds, McLeaish successfully handcuffed Donalson and called for an ambulance. McLeaish remained on top of Donalson while she put on rubber gloves, secured his handcuffs, and patted him down. Once another officer arrived to interview Donalson, McLeaish left the scene. Although Donalson was injured during the interaction, he refused medical treatment. Donalson was taken to a local hospital for a mental evaluation. The hospital determined Donalson did not require medical treatment and released him into the custody of the sheriff’s department, and he was transferred to jail. Over the next several months, Donalson claims that he experienced headaches, back pain, and abdominal pain from the incident. Medical records indicate Donalson was eventually diagnosed with headaches, post concussion syndrome, spinal nerve damage, and gastrointestinal hemorrhage.
Two years later, Donalson claimed that McLeaish violated his Fourth Amendment rights when she unlawfully detained him by limiting his movement by ordering him down a hallway and to sit in a chair, and by using excessive force to slam Donalson on the floor and cause serious injury by putting her knee in the small of his back. McLeaish moved for summary judgment and the District Court granted the motion. The 5th affirms.
Donalson does not appeal the district court’s dismissal of his unlawful seizure claim. Thus, only the excessive force claim is before us.
Donalson bears the burden of pointing to specific evidence of: (1) his injury; (2) which resulted from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need; and (3) the excessiveness of which was objectively unreasonable. As evidence of his injury, Donalson directs this Court to his records, which reflect diagnoses ranging from headache and trauma to acute lower GI bleeding. He also points to the video evidence, which he describes as portraying a prone Donalson lying under McLeaish and several other officers lying in a pool of blood.
It is indisputable that Donalson was injured during the scuffle at the courthouse. As Donalson points out, his injuries are apparent from the videos that show pools of blood underneath Donalson’s head and significant blood on his face. But as McLeaish notes, Donalson caused injury to himself when he hit himself in the head with his cell phone, thrashed around in his chair, and propelled himself onto the ground. The footage underscores McLeaish’s account: Donalson hit himself in the head repeatedly and forcefully rocked back forward and backward in his chair, seemingly hitting his head against the wall. Furthermore, the footage shows that it was Donalson, not McLeaish or Rule, who pulled himself to the floor. When he hit the ground, Donalson injured his face, which is captured clearly by the hallway camera.
Next, Donalson contends that his more serious injuries, i.e., the spinal and intestinal injuries, occurred once he was on the ground when McLeaish lifted one of her knees and struck Donalson in the back injuring his spine and small intestine. Donalson claims he was not resisting when McLeaish delivered her knee strike assault, and that the video footage removes any doubts as to the force used.
Even accepting that Donalson sustained serious injuries, we cannot say that McLeaish used excessive force. Excessive force claims are necessarily fact-intensive; whether the force used is excessive or unreasonable depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. Whether an officer acted reasonably is a totality of the circumstances assessment, but relevant factors include the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Although Donalson had committed no crime, we agree with the district court that he posed a threat to himself and others when he weaponized his phone. Donalson posed a threat to his own safety as soon as he began hitting himself in the head with a hard object, thrashing his body in the chair, and hitting his head against the wall. Donalson did not merely tap his forehead with the phone; audio from McLeaish’s body camera captured the sound of Donalson’s phone hitting his head five times before McLeaish approached him. The same clip reflects Donalson moving his head backwards and connecting with the wall.
Furthermore, Donalson’s actions threatened the deputies’ safety. When McLeaish attempted to hold his arm down, Donalson appeared to have tried to bite her. He continued to wave his phone and arms violently, and in doing so, brought his fist close to Rule’s head as she tried to restrain him. When he launched himself out of his chair, Donalson brought Rule down with him. Because Donalson presented an objective risk of harm to himself and the deputies, McLeaish had cause to temporarily restrain him.
The footage also indicates that McLeaish used minimal force when restraining Donalson. While Donalson was flailing in the chair, McLeaish approached him with her arms lowered; she limited her physical contact at first to his arms and wrists. Only when Donalson moved to the ground did McLeaish exert more force by using her right knee to hold Donalson down while she attempted to bring his left arm behind his back. Once Donalson was handcuffed, McLeaish remained on Donalson’s back for approximately one more minute while she put on rubber gloves, adjusted Donalson’s handcuffs, and performed a pat down. Once McLeaish completed her frisk, she stood up, thus removing any weight from Donalson.
In sum, less than three minutes passed between the moment when Donalson threw himself onto the ground and when Deputy McLeaish stopped exerting force. During this time, the body-worn camera and hallway recordings show that McLeaish placed her knee on Donalson’s back for approximately two and a half minutes. Although minutes may feel longer in the moment, McLeaish did not exert any more force than was needed to secure Donalson’s handcuffs, don rubber gloves, and perform a pat down.
Finally, although the footage shows McLeaish used her knee to restrain Donalson, it does not support Donalson’s contention that she twice lifted one of her knees and struck Donalson in the back injuring his spine and small intestine. In fact, the footage contradicts his claims. Thus, even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Donalson, his allegations are refuted by the video evidence such that no reasonable jury could believe his account. Donalson bore the burden of demonstrating McLeaish’s use of force was clearly excessive. He has not done so.
Law enforcement officers must use no more force than is necessary to restrain individuals. The video evidence conclusively supports this Court’s conclusions that Donalson presented a threat to himself and Deputies McLeaish and Rule, McLeaish exerted a reasonable amount of force to restrain Donalson, and she ceased doing so as soon as Donalson was secured. Under these circumstances, McLeaish is entitled to qualified immunity.
Accordingly, the district court’s ruling is AFFIRMED.