Qualified immunity

Waters v. Coleman, No. 14-1431, 2015 WL 6685394 (10th Cir. Nov. 3, 2015)

Officers involved in the subduing and arresting of a man experiencing “excited delirium” were entitled to qualified immunity against an excessive force claim by the man’s estate

Background: On July 18, 2011, Alonzo Ashley and his girlfriend visited the Denver Zoo. Zoo patrons called security when Ashley tried to cool off under a water fountain, and the police were called when zoo security reported that Ashley attacked a security officer. When the first officer on scene, Jones, approached Ashley, he noticed that Ashley was sweating profusely—a symptom of excited delirium. Ashley and Jones struggled, and Jones eventually tackled Ashley with the assistance of two zoo officers. Ashley attempted to punch Jones, and Jones deployed his Taser to Ashley’s back. When the second officer, Coleman, arrived, Ashley was still resisting, and Jones deployed his Taser again. Coleman also deployed his Taser two times and noticed that “Mr. Ashley seemed extremely strong.” When three more officers, the officers were eventually able to subdue Ashley, and after he was handcuffed he remained on his stomach for between 2 and 5 minutes. Noticing that Ashley had vomited, Conner called for medical assistance. Ashley vomited once more and then stopped breathing. The officers began chest compressions, but Ashley was pronounced dead after paramedics transported him to the hospital. Ashley’s mother, Gail Waters, brought a § 1983 action against the police officers alleging excessive use of force that led to his death. The United States District Court for the District of Colorado denied the officers’ motions for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity. The officers appealed.

Holding: The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part and dismissed in part, holding that all officers who participated in the arrest were entitled to qualified immunity. Additionally, the Tenth Circuit held that the Court of Appeals lacked jurisdiction to consider the denial of qualified immunity for lieutenant’s supervisory conduct as the ranking officer on scene after Ashley was handcuffed.

Notable Points:

Excessive force when detainee may be suffering from excited delirium: The Tenth Circuit did not reach the question of whether any officer’s conduct was objectively unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional because it found that, on the day of the incident, the law was not clearly established so as to alert the officers to the potential illegality of their conduct. Even though Ashley presented symptoms of excited delirium, the Tenth Circuit stated that it has never “required officers to refrain from a minimal use of force when dealing with an impaired individual,” noting several times the fact that a struggle was ongoing at the time that force was used. The Court noted that existing case law does, however, make it clear that continued use of force against a subdued or nonresisting person is not constitutionally permissible.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 34, Issue 4