Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas, Union City, California Police Department., was responding to a 911 call wherein a crying 12 year old girl said that she, her mother, and her 15 year old sister had shut themselves into a room in their house because Ramon Cortesluna, boyfriend of the mother, was trying to hurt them and had a chainsaw.
She went on to tell the 911 operator that Corteseluna was always drinking, had anger issues, was really mad, and was using the chainsaw to break something inside of the house. Dispatch advised Villegas and the other officers responding that the victims could not get out of the house and that sawing could be heard in the background.
Fearing that Cortesluna might be trying to saw down the door to the victims, police knocked loudly and announced their presence. Cortseluna exited with a metal tool in his hand but dropped it upon officers commands. As Cortseluna was about 10 feet from the officers, an officer yelled that he had a knife in his left pocket.
Officers ordered him to keep his hands up and then deployed two bean bag rounds on his body when he started to lower his hands. Villegas then straddled Cortseluna by placing his right foot on the ground next to Cortseluna’s right side and his left knee on the left side of Cortseluna’s back, near where the knife was located. He raised both of Cortseluna’s arms and then stood him up. Villegas was in this position for no more than eight seconds.
Cortseluna brought a §1983 lawsuit against Villegas for using excessive force to make the arrest (seizure) under the 4th amendment. The District Court granted a summary judgement but the 9th circuit reversed, citing similarities to another case from the 9th circuit titled LaLonde v. County of Riverside, 204 F. 3d 947 (CA9 2000).
Facts of LaLonde vs. Facts of this case
In LaLonde, officers were responding to a neighbor’s complaint that LaLonde had been making too much noise in his apartment. When they knocked on LaLonde’s door, he appeared in his underwear and a T- shirt, holding a sandwich in his hand. LaLonde testified that, after he refused to let the officers enter his home, they did so anyway and informed him he would be arrested for obstruction of justice.
One officer then knocked the sandwich from LaLonde’s hand and grabbed LaLonde by his ponytail and knocked him backwards to the ground. After a short scuffle, the officer sprayed LaLonde in the face with pepper spray. At that point, LaLonde ceased resisting and another officer, while handcuffing LaLonde, deliberately dug his knee into LaLonde’s back with a force that caused him long term if not permanent back injury.
In our case, officers were responding to a serious alleged incident of domestic violence possibly involving a chainsaw. Cortesluna had a knife protruding from his left pocket for which he had just previously appeared to reach when Villegas straddled him and put his knee on Cortseluna’s back for less than eight seconds before standing him up.
The 9th circuit noted that both cases involved suspects who were lying face down on the ground and were not resisting either physically or verbally, on whose back the defendant officer leaned with a knee, causing allegedly significant injury.
Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. A right is clearly established when it is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.
Although this Court’s case law does not require a case directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. This inquiry must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.
Whether an officer has used excessive force depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including 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.