Police officer who tasered and punched compliant suspect not entitled to qualified immunity E-mail
Written by Muna Busailah and Robert Rabe   

The case is Mendoza v. City of West Covina: David Mendoza died of asphyxiation in March  2007, while in police custody at a hospital after he was repeatedly tasered and punched by West Covina police officer Enrique Macias, and then pinned to the ground and handcuffed by Macias and three other police officers.  A jury awarded compensation to the family of Mendoza. Mendoza had walked into the backyard of a home, tried to open a window, and asked to use a telephone.  The home’s owner called the police, who found Mendoza seated on a curb. 

One of those officers was Macias.  Mendoza asked Macias to help him.  Macias arrested Mendoza on suspicion of burglary and took him to a holding cell.  Mendoza complained that he had stomach pains and was hearing voices.  Macias took Mendoza to the hospital.

The family of Mendoza sought wrongful death damages through a §1983 action, which provides that every person who, under color of statute, deprives a citizen of his rights pursuant to the United States Constitution or federal law, shall be liable in an action at law.  The United States Supreme Court has created a qualified immunity for public officers who are defendants in such actions.  Macias contends on appeal that his use of force was entitled to qualified immunity.  The qualified immunity rule shields public officers from §1983 actions unless the officer has violated a clearly established constitutional right. 

This turns on a determination of whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful under the circumstances he confronted.

Whether a plaintiff’s constitutional rights were violated by the use of excessive force involves several factors: the nature and quality of force used and the court will consider the governmental interests at stake by looking at the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and if the suspect was actively resisting arrest or trying to evade arrest by flight.  

Whether the right was clearly established turns on if the case law at the time of the alleged constitution violation made it sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have known his conduct violates that right.

Although the facts were in dispute, the Court and jury found that the evidence supported a finding Macias punched and tasered a nonresisting and compliant man he knew was physically ill.  The Court also found that Macias was responsible for the restraint that caused Mendoza to asphyxiate both as an active participant who was atop Mendoza and because he did not fulfill his duty to ensure that Mendoza was able to breathe while he was being pinned. The force was excessive.

Macias contended that there was no clearly established constitutional right to be free from this type of force at the time of this incident, citing a 2011 case that discussed two use of force incidents that involved tasers from 2004 and 2006. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals held that the police in each instance had used excessive force under the circumstances and violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.  However, at the time of each incident, only three federal courts had published decisions concerning the use of tasers, and each found no constitutional violation. 

Because no circuit court had found a constitutional violation from taser use, the court concluded that even though the force used was excessive, it could not conclude that every reasonable police officer would have understood beyond debate that tasering those plaintiffs under the circumstances of each case constituted excessive force and held that the officers in those cases were entitled to qualified immunity.  Based on that case, Macias contended that even if there was sufficient evidence that he used excessive force, the unlawfulness of his conduct had not been clearly established at the time of Mendoza’s death in March 2007.  The Court disagreed and upheld the judgment. 

The case cited by Macias involved plaintiffs who actively resisted police officers.  Other cases from that time that held the use of a taser was not clearly unlawful involved dangerous or confrontational suspects who were resisting arrest or other police commands.  The Court in this case found numerous other federal court decisions that made it clear that before 2007, using various types of force, including tasers, on a compliant, nonresistant suspect violated clearly established constitutional rights.  When the factual settings and principles of those decisions are tied together, they show that as of March 2007, Mendoza had a clearly established constitutional right to be free from being tasered, punched, and pinned so hard on his stomach that he asphyxiated.

Comment: Although their use is still controversial in some quarters, the taser can no longer be considered an experimental or novel weapon for law enforcement personnel.  While the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the officers involved in the incidents that occurred in 2004 and 2006 were entitled to qualified immunity, those same actions today would not be covered, just as Officer Macias’s actions were not covered in 2007.  The unlawfulness of such conduct has now been clearly established.  Today, an officer who uses excessive use of force in an incident that involves a taser will not be entitled to qualified immunity.  An officer must consider the same factors when using a taser as with any other weapon.

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