Tony Timpa – the officers originally received qualified immunity, meaning Timpa’s estate had no right to state their case before a jury. Panel says officers don’t have qualified immunity in case; civil rights expert calls ruling a “shocker.’’
A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that Dallas police officers violated a mentally ill man’s constitutional rights when they pinned him to the ground for 14 minutes before he stopped breathing — and that the officers could be held liable for his 2016 death.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision reverses Dallas Judge David Godbey’s finding last year that the officers were shielded by qualified immunity in a lawsuit brought by Tony Timpa’s family alleging excessive force. Civil rights experts called the ruling unusual for the 5th Circuit, a conservative panel known for backing such protections.
On August 10, 2016, Timpa, who was 32 then, called 911 and asked for help. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder, but he was off his medications that day and had taken cocaine.
The Dallas Police Department (DPD) officers who responded to him—Sgt. Kevin Mansell, Senior Corporal Raymond Dominguez, and officers Dustin Dillard and Danny Vasquez—were aware of this: The 911 operator told them, and Timpa himself admitted it.
The cops put Timpa on his stomach, cuffed his hands and ankles, and kept him subdued in the prone position for more than 14 minutes. Vasquez pressed his knee into Timpa’s back for the first two minutes and Dillard did the same for the entire duration, even after Timpa had calmed.
He became non-responsive for the last three minutes, and later he was pronounced dead.
Until last month, Tony Timpa’s family wasn’t allowed to sue the police officers who allegedly caused his death by pinning him to the ground for about 15 minutes while he begged for help. Those cops had been given qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that insulates various government officials from scrutiny in civil court if the way they allegedly misbehaved has not yet been “clearly established” in some prior court ruling.
On the body camera footage, the officers can be heard making light of his apparent loss of consciousness. Asked if Timpa was still breathing, Dillard responded “I think he’s asleep!” and said that he heard him “snoring.” Dominguez and Vasquez then joined in, joking that Timpa was a schoolboy who didn’t want to go to class but could be lured out of bed with some “tutti-frutti waffles.”
The 5th Circuit was not convinced by the lower court’s decision to shield the men from a jury.
“DPD training instructed that a subject in a state of excited delirium must, ‘as soon as possible[,] [be] mov[ed]…to a recovery position (on [their] side or seated upright),'” writes Judge Edith Brown Clement, “because the prolonged use of a prone restraint may result in a ‘combination of increased oxygen demand with a failure to maintain an open airway and/or inhibition of the chest wall and diaphragm [that] has been cited in positional asphyxia deaths.’
She also notes that the training explicitly says that a subject suddenly becoming unresponsive is a sign that he may be dying.
But an officer’s own training is not enough to overcome qualified immunity. A victim must find a closely aligned court precedent, as if cops are more likely to read case law texts than their own training materials.
Within the Fifth Circuit, the law has long been clearly established that an officer’s continued use of force on a restrained and subdued subject is objectively unreasonable,” says Clement.
“This opinion gives cause for optimism and pessimism,” says Easha Anand, Supreme Court and appellate counsel at the MacArthur Justice Center and an attorney for Timpa’s estate.
“The cause for optimism is the 5th Circuit has reiterated now, as a doctrinal matter, [that] if the only difference you can find between case one and case two is the kind of force being used, that’s not good enough.”
The appeals court concluded that the suit could go forward against the four officers who were at the scene: Kevin Mansell, Danny Vasquez, Dustin Dillard and Raymond Dominguez.