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Qualified immunity when tasing someone who is trying to hang themselves

Facts

Around 10:36 p.m. on June 23, 2015, Maria Ramirez called 9-1-1 to report that her 30-year-old son Daniel Ramirez was preparing to hang himself from the basketball hoop in their back yard. Dispatch informed the El Paso Police Department of a suicide in progress. Neither Maria’s call nor the dispatch stated that Daniel had a weapon. El Paso Police Officer Ruben Escajeda, Jr., received the dispatch and rushed to the house.

When Escajeda arrived minutes later, at 10:40 p.m., he found the lights off. He became concerned, asking himself “Why [was] the house so dark, inside and . . . outside?” Without announcing his presence, he proceeded to the back yard, gun drawn. He decided not to wait for other officers because he felt urgency to prevent a suicide. Scanning with his flashlight, Escajeda saw Daniel standing on his tiptoes with a rope around his neck connected to a basketball hoop. Daniel was staring forward with his hands clenching the rope around his neck.

Concerned he could be walking into an ambush, Escajeda repeatedly ordered Daniel to show his hands to ensure he had no weapon. Daniel’s hands stayed around the rope. So, Escajeda holstered his gun, moved closer, and tased Daniel in the abdomen for five seconds. Daniel’s body tensed and Escajeda saw Daniel’s fists squeeze harder and heard a crunch or gargle. Escajeda then removed the rope from around Daniel’s neck and lowered him to the ground.

He administered CPR on Daniel and felt a faint pulse in his neck. Other officers arrived seconds later and assisted Escajeda with CPR. Paramedics arrived soon after and took Daniel to a nearby emergency room where he was pronounced dead at 11:24 p.m. An autopsy concluded Daniel’s death was caused by hanging. Daniel’s parents sued Escajeda under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging the tasing constituted excessive force in violation of their son’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Escajeda invoked qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment. The district court denied his motion. As to the first qualified immunity prong, the court found two material fact disputes that precluded it from deciding whether Escajeda used constitutionally excessive force, namely (1) whether the tasing contributed to Daniel’s death, and (2) whether the tasing was unreasonable under the circumstances. As to the second prong, the court concluded it was clearly established at the time of the incident that officers may not use a taser against a subdued person who neither committed any crime nor who resisted the officers’ authority. Escajeda timely appealed. The 5th reversed.

Analysis

To overcome qualified immunity, the plaintiffs must show that Escajeda (1) violated a constitutional right and (2) that the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. Courts have discretion to address either or both prongs.

Escajeda argues for reversal on prong one because the plaintiffs failed to show the tasing caused Daniel’s death. We lack jurisdiction to consider this issue, however, because the district court found causation subject to a genuine fact dispute.

Escajeda next argues that, fact disputes aside, he is still entitled to qualified immunity because his use of force did not violate any clearly established constitutional right. We agree.

Excessive force cases often involve officers’ making split-second decisions and the results depend very much on the facts of each case. This means existing precedent must squarely govern the specific facts at issue, such that only someone who is plainly incompetent or who knowingly violates the law would have behaved as the official did.

In denying Escajeda qualified immunity, the district court reasoned it was clearly established that officers may not use a taser against a subdued person who neither committed any crime nor who resisted the officers’ authority. The court relied on three of our cases, which the plaintiffs also advance on appeal: Bush, Guedry,  and Martinez.

At the outset, we note that by citing no factually similar Supreme Court cases, the plaintiffs effectively concede that Supreme Court precedent offers them no help. Additionally, the plaintiffs’ argument requires us to assume that Fifth Circuit precedent alone can clearly establish the law for qualified immunity purposes, something the Supreme Court has left open. Those caveats aside, the three circuit cases cited by the plaintiffs are not factually similar enough to the situation Escajeda faced to have placed the lawfulness of his taser use beyond debate.

In Bush, an officer bashed the plaintiff’s face into a car, breaking two of her teeth, even though her hands were cuffed behind her back. Denying qualified immunity, we held the officer should have known that he could not forcefully slam the plaintiff’s face into a vehicle while she was restrained and subdued.

In Newman, an officer was frisking the plaintiff during a traffic stop when he made a suggestive comment to the officer. Officers beat the plaintiff with batons, tased him twice, and tased him again after he fell to the ground. We denied qualified immunity because the officers immediately resorted to taser and nightstick without attempting to use physical skill, negotiation, or even commands when the plaintiff was in custody, committed no crime, posed no threat to anyone’s safety, and did not resist the officers or fail to comply with a command.

Finally, in Martinez, the plaintiff confronted officers who were at his business executing a warrant for his sister-in-law’s arrest. When the plaintiff refused to put his hands behind his back and batted an officer’s hand away, the officer tased him and other officers forced him face- down on the ground and handcuffed him. The plaintiff stopped resisting, but the officer tased him again. We relied on Bush and Newman to deny qualified immunity, reasoning the plaintiff allegedly posed no threat to the officers and yet was tased twice, including once after he was handcuffed and subdued while lying face down on the ground, in violation of clearly established law.

These cases do not clearly establish Escajeda’s conduct was unlawful. All three involved plaintiffs already under police control (either handcuffed or submitting to a frisk) who were nevertheless subjected to gratuitous violence (face slammed into a car, beaten with batons, tased). Those cases are not this one. Contrary to the plaintiffs’ arguments, Escajeda did not have Daniel subdued and under his control when he used the taser.

To the contrary, Escajeda faced a tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situation, wholly unlike those faced by the officers in Bush, Newman, and Martinez.

Escajeda used the taser precisely because Daniel was not in custody and Escajeda was unsure whether the strange scenario he faced posed a threat to his safety. Perhaps his fear that he might be walking into an ambush was unfounded; in that event, the tasing could be excessive under prong one of the analysis. But even so, no authority cited by the plaintiffs remotely addresses the situation Escajeda faced. It follows, then, that Escajeda could not have been on notice that his single use of the taser was clearly unlawful.

Furthermore, the district court did not frame the constitutional question with specificity and granularity. The court asked about the proper use of tasers against a subdued person. That is too general. It is one thing to ask whether police may tase someone after they have handcuffed him and put him face-down on the ground. It is quite another to ask whether an officer may tase someone who may be hanging himself, who may or may not have a weapon, who does not respond to the officer’s commands—all when the officer approaches him rapidly, alone, and in the dark.

These multiple factual distinctions matter. Even viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiffs, as we must, the unusual setting separates this case from routine pat-downs and arrests gone wrong where officers pointlessly or sadistically use force. Existing precedent did not put the lawfulness of Escajeda’s actions beyond debate, and so his use of a taser under these unique circumstances did not violate clearly established law.

Accordingly, we REVERSE the district court’s judgment and RENDER judgment granting Officer Escajeda qualified immunity.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/21/21-50858-CV0.pdf