Federal court grants qualified immunity to officer who killed suicidal man

Violent arrest

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted qualified immunity to a Texas police officer who violently arrested a Black mother and her daughters in 2016.

Fort Worth officer William Martin was dispatched in response to a conflict between neighbors on December 21, 2016. Jacqueline Craig’s then-seven-year-old son allegedly littered in a white neighbor’s yard. The neighbor grabbed the boy by the neck, in what Craig described as a choking hold. Both Craig and the neighbor called 911 for assistance.

Officer Martin responded alone. He spoke to both parties — one who claimed to be the victim of littering and one who claimed her son had been physically assaulted. Body camera video and cell phone video depict the encounter:

When Martin arrived at the scene, he spoke with the male complainant; Martin then approached Craig to obtain her version of the events. Craig told Martin that the man had grabbed her son, A.C., after A.C. had allegedly littered. In response, Martin asked: “Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?”

Craig, visibly agitated, told Martin that it did not matter whether her son had littered, asserting that the man did not have the right to put his hands on her son. Martin replied: “Why not?”

Craig started to shout at Martin after this provocation. Martin asked why she was shouting at him, to which Craig responded: “Because you just pissed me off telling me what I teach my kids and what I don’t.” Martin replied in a calm voice: “If you keep yelling at me, you’re going to piss me off, and I’m going to take you to jail.”

Craig’s fifteen-year-old daughter intervened to try to diffuse the situation, putting her hands on her mom’s arms. Martin reacted to this by grabbing the daughter and pulling her away. He arrested Craig, shoving her to the ground with his taser in his back. He then arrested both daughters, allegedly striking one in the throat and kicking the other in the leg.

The three-judge 5th Circuit panel—made up of a G.W. Bush appointee, a G.H.W. Bush appointee, and a Trump appointee—ruled that “it was not objectively unreasonable for Martin to grab Craig and force her to the ground.” They similarly ruled that Martin used “a relatively minimal amount of force” in the arrest of Craig’s two daughters.

The more serious claim in Craig’s case relates to her third daughter, Brea Hymond, who was recording the encounter with Officer Martin on her cellphone. Martin arrested Hymond, using a “compliance technique” to purposefully inflict pain on Hymond despite a lack of resistance:

After Martin secured Hymond’s mother and little sister in the back of his police vehicle, after the situation was de-escalating, after any conceivable threat to anyone’s safety was fully extinguished, Martin unnecessarily re-escalated the encounter by confronting Hymond—who had been recording the incident from a distance and yelling at the officer that she was doing so—grabbing her, shoving her against his patrol car, ripping the phone out of her hand, and placing her under arrest for “interfering.” But Martin’s display of authority did not end there.

While Martin stood by his patrol vehicle, effortlessly holding Hymond by his side with a single hand, Hymond repeated that she saw Martin “kick her,” referring to [Craig’s other daughter]. In response, Martin started questioning Hymond: “How old are you? What is your name?” Hymond did not immediately answer his questions. So, with Hymond’s hands restrained behind her back, Martin jerked her arms up into the air, applying a pain control maneuver taught in police training, and repeated the question, enunciating in a slow, purposeful staccato: “What. Is. Your. Name?”

The “pain control technique” was meant to prompt a response, rather than restrain a resisting arrestee, which is illegal. Yet, the 5th Circuit granted Martin qualified immunity for his use of force against Hymond as well.

Craig and her daughters petitioned the 5th Circuit for an en banc hearing, wherein all judges on the circuit bench hear the case, but Fort Worth reached a settlement with the family before it reached the full court. If approved by the City Council, Craig will receive $150,000. The city will admit no fault.

Officer Martin was given a 10-day suspension for violating departmental policies.

Suicidal man

A different three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted qualified immunity to an officer who tased a man about to hang himself, thereby causing his death.

On the night of June 23, 2015, Maria Ramirez called 911 to report that her 30-year-old son Daniel was preparing to hang himself from the basketball hoop in their backyard. Neither she nor dispatch informed officers that Daniel had a weapon, because he did not.

El Paso Police Officer Ruben Escajeda, Jr., responded to the call. He did not announce himself to anyone at the house and instead went straight to the backyard.

This is where Escajeda’s account becomes conflicted. He argued before the 5th Circuit that he both felt “urgency to prevent a suicide,” so proceeded alone, and was simultaneously “concerned he could be walking into an ‘ambush’,” so drew his firearm and began giving orders to Daniel to show his hands:

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.

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.

Daniel was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead a little over an hour after his mom called the police asking for assistance. His family sued, alleging Escajeda used excessive force in violation of Daniel’s constitutional rights. District Judge David Guaderrama, an Obama appointee, denied immunity for the officer, finding that “officers may not use a taser against a subdued person who neither committed any crime nor who resisted the officers’ authority.”

Three judges of the 5th Circuit—Carl Stewart, a Clinton appointee, Edith Jones, a Reagan appointee, and Kyle Duncan, a Trump appointee—overruled Guaderrama, finding that Officer Escajeda is “entitled to qualified immunity because his use of force did not violate any clearly established constitutional right.”

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…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…

In other words, the “unique circumstances” of the case do not match any existing case law. Therefore, “Escajeda could not have been on notice that his single use of the taser was clearly unlawful” and he is entitled to qualified immunity in the 5th Circuit’s opinion.

Reminder: Last year, the same circuit granted qualified immunity to cops who tased a suicidal man after he covered himself in gasoline, setting him alight and killing him.