Excessive Force

Aldaba v. Pickens, 844 F.3d 870 (10th Cir. 2016)

The Tenth Circuit (following remand from the U.S. Supreme Court) reverses its prior decision that had denied qualified immunity to police officers in regard to a claim they used excessive force in subduing a medical patient attempting to leave the hospital (and risking death) due to temporary delirium, finding on remand that there were no existing case decisions that would have clearly informed those officers that their conduct violated Fourth amendment standards.

Background: Johnny Manuel Leija was admitted to the hospital after feeling ill for several days and was diagnosed with dehydration and severe pneumonia in both lungs. He was initially alert and cooperative and he was given an IV and an oxygen tube. The treatment improved Leija’s condition, but a nurse later found that Leija had cut his IV and removed his oxygen tube. She also found blood on the floor and in the bathroom. The nurse reconnected his IV and oxygen tube, but Leija became increasingly agitated. A doctor prescribed Xanax to treat his anxiety, but Leija refused to take it and again removed his IV and oxygen tube while loudly claiming that the nurse was telling lies and trying to poison him. The female nurse became concerned for her safety based on Leija’s behavior and a male nurse was sent to try to calm Leija. The male nurse found Leija claiming to be god and superman. The nurse attempted to inject Leija with Haldol and Ativan to calm him, but Leija refused to cooperate. The doctor was concerned about Leija’s low oxygen levels, and the nurse did not think they could restrain Leija sufficiently to administer the drugs for treatment. Law enforcement was called to assist. Three officers responded and found Leija in the hallway walking toward the hospital lobby and exit. The doctor told the officers that if Leija left the hospital he would die. The officers ordered Leija to return to his room, but he grew more agitated. Leija removed bandages from his arms and a “fairly steady stream of blood” began to flow from both of his arms. The officers tried to calm Leija and warned him that they might use a Taser. When Leija refused to cooperate, a Taser was deployed, but one of the probes missed. The other officers grabbed Leija and struggled to subdue him. As the three officers struggled with Leija, the male nurse injected him with Haldol and Ativan. Leija went limp, grunted and vomited clear liquid almost immediately after being injected with the drugs. Medical staff began CPR, but were unable to revive him. The cause of death was determined to be respiratory insufficiency secondary to pneumonia that was exacerbated by Leija’s exertion during the struggle with the officers. The Tenth circuit originally affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment for the officers, but the U.S. Supreme Court remanded with instructions to reconsider consistent with Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305 (2015). In Mullenix, the Court ruled that qualified immunity should be denied only when “clearly established case law” would put officers on notice that it was “beyond debate” that their actions amounted to excessive force.

Holding: The Tenth Circuit found no cases that would have informed the officers “beyond debate” that their actions would be excessive force. Accordingly, the court remanded the case with instructions for the district court to grant summary judgment in favor of the officers based on qualified immunity.

Notable Point:

Qualified Immunity analysis: The Mullenix court emphasized that courts should not define clearly established case law at a high level of generality. The Court explained that “specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context” because officers may have difficulty in determining how the legal doctrine will apply to the particular factual situation with which an officer may be confronted. The Court stressed that the inquiry must be focused on the specific facts and context of a particular case.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 4