A Police Officer That Kneels On Someone’s Back May Be Guilty of Police Brutality
There are many forms of police brutality that the civil rights attorneys at the Piccuta Law Group deal with. Almost all police brutality involves excessive force. Excessive force is the unreasonable and unnecessary use of force by law enforcement. It can include:
- choke holds
- control holds
- positional asphyxiation
- force while handcuffed or restrained
- use of a police K9
- discharge of pepper spray/OC spray or tear gas
- baton strikes
- other uses of force that are not warranted under the circumstances
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the federal appellate court for the district courts in several western states. This includes, Arizona, California and Nevada. The civil rights attorneys at Piccuta Law Group have handled cases in all three of these states and are licensed to practice there. Our civil rights attorneys regularly handle police brutality and excessive force cases in Arizona and California and currently have several excessive force cases pending there
The decisions that come from the Ninth Circuit control the lower federal courts in the states under its jurisdiction. This includes Arizona and California. Simply put, the federal courts in Arizona and California must follow the rulings of the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit recently decided a case that allows a citizen to pursue his claims for police brutality when a law enforcement officer kneels on someone laying down and causes injury.
In the case of Cortesluna v. Leon, 979 F.3d 645 (9th Cir. 2020), a panel of judges on the Ninth Circuit recently held that the force used by a police officer was excessive when the officer kneeled on the back of a prone, non-resisting criminal suspect so hard that the officer caused injury. The panel decided that existing case law put the officer on notice that the force was excessive and his actions potentially illegal. As a result, the officer was not shielded by qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects a government official from civil liability for performing certain aspects of his or her job. This includes police officers. The scope of this post is limited to that portion of the opinion addressing the claim of excessive force against this particular officer.
The Facts of the Police Brutality Case
On November 6, 2016, a 12-year-old girl called 911 to report that she, her 15-year-old sister, and her mother were at home barricaded in a bedroom. The caller reported that they were hiding from the mother’s boyfriend, who had “anger issues,” was “always drinking,” was “really mad,” and had a chainsaw that he was going to attack them with. The 15-year-old sister confirmed to the 911 dispatcher that the boyfriend was directly outside the door to the bedroom, and that she could hear sawing on the doorknob. Officers were then dispatched to the home.
Three police officers, including police officer Rivas-Villegas, responded to the scene. When they arrived, they observed the boyfriend in the window inside the home holding nothing but a beer. At no point did the officers hear or see a chainsaw, though the 911 operator informed one of the officers that the boyfriend may have been attempting to use the chainsaw “manually.” Officer Rivas-Villegas knocked on the front door, announced he was with Union City police and instructed the boyfriend to come to the door. The boyfriend then appeared through a nearby sliding glass door. In his hand, the boyfriend held a sizeable metal object that looked like a crowbar. He was ordered to drop the weapon and did so as commanded.
The officer then instructed the boyfriend to walk toward him with his hands up. The boyfriend obeyed and began walking toward the officers. When the boyfriend was about ten to eleven feet away, the officer ordered the boyfriend to stop and get on his knees. Immediately after, another officer saw and announced that the boyfriend had a knife in the front left pocket of his pants. The officer told the boyfriend to keep his hands up and not to put them down. The boyfriend responded by turning his head toward the officer and lowering his head and hands. A third officer quickly shot the boyfriend with two beanbag rounds while the boyfriend’s hands were in a downward position.
The boyfriend raised his hands back up after the second beanbag shot and was ordered to get on the ground. The boyfriend complied and began to move toward the ground when the officer pushed the boyfriend the rest of the way down with his foot. Next, the officer put his knee into the back of the boyfriend and pulled his arms behind his back. The officer maintained his position while another officer applied handcuffs to the boyfriend’s hands. The officer picked the boyfriend off the ground without further incident.
The boyfriend filed a civil rights lawsuit against the three officers and Union City on various theories of recovery, including excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and related state law claims. The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the officer, holding that the force used was objectively reasonable. It also concluded that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.
Summary judgment provides a judgment to the moving party and ends the case without allowing a jury to decide it. Here, it ended the case in favor of the police officer preventing the boyfriend from presenting his case to a jury. The boyfriend appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit.
The Analysis by the Court of Appeals in Overturning Qualified Immunity in the Police Brutality Case
The Ninth Circuit began its discussion by reciting well-established principles regarding qualified immunity. The court explained that a qualified immunity analysis is a two-step process. In step one, the court determines whether the facts favorable to the boyfriend would allow a reasonable jury to determine that an officer violated the boyfriend’s constitutional right, e.g., excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The determination depends on a balancing of the intrusion on a person’s Fourth Amendment rights against the government’s interest in the use of the particular force.
Included in this analysis is a list of what are commonly known as the “Graham Factors.” The most important of which is “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). Other factors that are considered in police brutality cases include the type of force used, the extent of the injuries caused, whether the suspect is actively attempting to flee or resist and the severity of the crime.
In step two, the court decides whether the right at issue in step one was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. For liability to attach, case law existing at the time of the questionable conduct must have placed the question of the constitutionality of the conduct beyond dispute. In other words, a police officer is not entitled to qualified immunity if a case involving similar circumstances existed at the time where another officer was held to have violated the constitutional right to be free from police brutality. The reason for this is because the officer would then be on notice that his or her conduct was unlawful by established case law.
In other words, a police officer is not entitled to qualified immunity if a case involving similar circumstances existed at the time where another officer was held to have violated the constitutional right to be free from police brutality.
After a review of these general principles, the Court of Appeals in Cortesluna began its application of the law to the conduct of the officer. Though courts may begin the qualified immunity analysis with either of the two steps, here, the court began by examining whether the officer’s force was excessive. According to the boyfriend’s version of events, he had already been shot twice with the beanbag rounds when the officer approached him and applied pressure to his back. Further, he was lying on the ground, face-down, was experiencing visible pain from the beanbag rounds, was not resisting and posed no risk.
Somewhat curiously, the court downplayed that the boyfriend still had a knife in his pocket. In doing so, the court explained that the officer could see that the knife in the boyfriend’s front pocket was protruding blade-up. The court decided that at that point, it would have been impossible for the boyfriend to grab the knife and attack someone. What makes this curious is that the boyfriend was not yet handcuffed during the initial application of the force by the officer.
The court continued by finding that a knee in the back that causes an injury is a meaningful personal intrusion. However, the court went to great lengths to proclaim that a significant injury was not required. The boyfriend in this matter alleged the officer’s conduct caused him to suffer emotional distress, headaches and neck and back pain. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the force used by the officer was excessive.
The court then visited the issue of whether the officer’s conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right. In other words, whether a case existed with similar facts where it was already decided that the use of force was unreasonable. The court concentrated its analysis on the case of LaLonde v. County of Riverside, 204 F.3d 947 (9th Cir. 2000).
In LaLonde, a police officer grabbed the suspect and knocked him down to the ground where the officer straddled and handcuffed the suspect. Then, another officer forced his knee into the suspect’s back, causing the suspect to suffer considerable pain and an ongoing back injury. Similarly, the officers in LaLonde were informed that the suspect at one point had a deadly weapon, which in the LaLonde case was a rifle. Further, the suspect had at first been non-compliant. However, when the officer put his knee into the suspect’s back, the suspect was no longer resisting and had been hit with pepper spray. The Ninth Circuit in LaLonde concluded that taking these facts as true, the officers’ conduct amounted to excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court found significant that both cases involved persons who were face-down on the ground and not resisting when an officer’s knee to the back caused “allegedly significant injury.”
In Cortesluna, the Ninth Circuit found that the circumstances presently before it were similar enough to LaLonde that the officer was on notice, at the time of the subject-incident, that the force he used was excessive. The court found significant that both cases involved persons who were face-down on the ground and not resisting when an officer’s knee to the back caused “allegedly significant injury.” Other similarities that persuaded the court included the report of a deadly weapon, the initial non-compliance, the prone position of the suspect and the obvious injury prior to the use of force. As such, the court reversed the summary judgment of the district court in favor of the officer.
The reversal of summary judgment means that the case was reinstated and that the boyfriend will be able to present his case to a jury. A jury will then decide if the officer’s use of force was excessive and constitutes police brutality. It does not mean the boyfriend won his case or will win his case. A jury could very well still decide in favor of the officer and find that the officer did not use excessive force.
Not surprisingly, the California Peace Officers Association has already expressed its concern over the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in this case. If the officer wants to challenge this ruling he may appeal it to the United States Supreme Court. The police brutality attorneys at Piccuta Law Group are keeping a close eye on whether the decision is appealed and the effect the appeal could have.
Call Experienced Police Brutality Attorneys for Your Excessive Force Case
Civil rights and police brutality cases are hard and complex. They involve intricate constitutional issues and complicated case law. There is a reason why you can find a car accident attorney on every corner and billboard, but not civil rights attorneys who handle difficult police brutality cases. The civil rights lawyers at the Piccuta Law Group have extensive experience and a proven record of success handling civil rights cases involving law enforcement misconduct and police brutality. If you were the victim of police brutality or excessive force, contact the Piccuta Law Group for a free consultation. Our police brutality lawyers can analyze your case and discuss your rights and potential for a recovery. There is no fee unless we win your case and obtain a recovery. Contact us at today at (831) 920-3111.
About the author: The content on this page was written by California civil rights lawyer and Monterey personal injury attorney Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Ranked Top 35 US News & World Report 2018). Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout California and Arizona. He is a winning trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is AV Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project, Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association and Scottsdale Bar Association, among other organizations.
Disclaimer: The information on this web site is attorney advertising and is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice. Reading and relying upon the content on this page does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, you should contact our law firm for a free consultation and to discuss your specific case and issues.