In 2018, Zachariah Holm initiated a violent altercation with correctional officers as a pretrial detainee held in the Comal County Jail. The incident was captured on video. Holm and several other pretrial detainees had flooded their cell block, and officers responded in riot gear to deescalate the scene. Disobeying direct orders to face the wall, Holm ran out of his cell and charged the officers.
Six days later, Holm engaged in another physical altercation, which is the subject of this appeal. The incident involved Officer Salvador Martinez, Officer Daniel Ruiz, and Sergeant Derrick Sassenhagen, each of whom was aware of Holm’s recent aggressive behavior. The record includes body camera footage from Martinez and Ruiz and an overhead recording without audio.
The videos begin with Martinez waiting for Ruiz to assist in escorting Holm between cells. After the cell door opened, Martinez ordered Holm to exit and place his hands behind his back. Holm complied. The officers escorted him single-file in the narrow hallway. Holm walked in front of Martinez with Ruiz at the tail. After a few seconds, Holm turned his shoulders toward Martinez and said, “Hey, don’t step on my feet man.”
Martinez put a hand on Holm’s upper back and ordered him to “keep walking” multiple times. Although Holm kept his hands behind his back, the video establishes that he disobeyed Martinez’s direct and repeated orders. Instead of walking forward, Holm slowed down and turned his shoulders further as though to confront the officers in the cramped confines of the hallway. In addition to this physical posture, Holm said in an agitated, loud tone: “Get your mother-f*cking hands off me.”
Martinez then took Holm to the ground with Ruiz’s help. On the ground, the officers attempted to handcuff Holm. The video shows that Holm physically resisted and cursed at the officers: “Are you f*cking kidding me?” A few seconds later, Sassenhagen arrived to assist. He placed one knee and one hand on Holm’s back to restrain him.
The video establishes an ongoing, physical struggle between the officers and Holm. After twelve seconds, Martinez ordered Holm to put his hands behind his back. To effect compliance, Martinez struck Holm on his upper shoulder. Holm contends that Sassenhagen also struck him in the head and face, which the videos do not contradict. As soon as the officers handcuffed Holm, they ceased the use of force, released the restraint, and escorted Holm to an observation cell. In total, the struggle on the floor lasted only 56 seconds.
Holm was treated for shoulder, head, and jaw pain on the day of the incident and again the day after. He presented with bruising on his left eye, his jaw, and the back of his head. In connection with this incident, Holm was found guilty by the disciplinary board of “disruption of the orderly running of the facility.” Holm’s grievance relating to the incident was denied.
Holm brought this pro se suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Martinez, Ruiz, and Sassenhagen, in their individual capacities. The officers moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The magistrate judge granted summary judgment in their favor. Holm appealed the “outcome” of the case, which we liberally interpret as the Order granting summary judgment. The 5th affirmed.
Qualified immunity includes two inquiries. The first question is whether the officer violated a constitutional right. The second question is whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. The two questions may be answered in any order.
As to the second prong of qualified immunity, an officer cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it. See Tucker. If officers of reasonable competence could disagree as to whether the plaintiff’s rights were violated, the officer’s qualified immunity remains intact. See Tarver. In other words, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. See SCOTUS Mullenix v Luna, 577 U.S. 7 (2015).
Where, as here, there is video and audio recording of the facts at issue, we are not required to accept factual allegations “blatantly contradicted by the record” but may instead view the facts as depicted by the videotape. See Scott.
Force against a pretrial detainee is excessive and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment when the force was objectively unreasonable. See Fairchild. The crux of Holm’s complaint is that the takedown by Martinez and Ruiz and the strikes by Martinez and Sassenhagen constituted objectively unreasonable force. However, we need not determine whether the officers’ use of force to effect a takedown and restraint on the ground was objectively unreasonable because the asserted right against that use of force was not clearly established.
Starting with the takedown, our case law has not established that it is objectively unreasonable to bring to the ground and restrain a verbally and physically aggressive, unrestrained pretrial detainee after seeking compliance with verbal commands. See Tennyson.
The strikes to Holm’s body, head, and face present a closer call. But two factors distinguish the specific facts here from cases where we held that objectively unreasonable force was used. First, Holm was unrestrained and continued to disobey the officers’ commands by actively resisting on the ground. This is not a case where a pretrial detainee was subjected to the continued use of force after he was subdued or handcuffed. See Fairchild and Timpa.
Second, the officers’ response was informed by Holm’s recent violent attack on correctional officers. The heightened risk to officer safety present upon these facts is a significant factor distinguishing this case. See Narro.
We therefore agree with the district court that Holm has not met his burden to rebut the officers’ invocations of qualified immunity.