from the only-response-to-possible-harm-is-more-harm,-apparently dept
One of the many symptoms of the many, deep-rooted, law enforcement sicknesses is how often officers decide to “help” people by harming them. That’s why some cities have chosen to redirect mental health issues to mental health professionals, rather than to armed officers who view anything they can’t immediately address with yelling and pointing of weapons as a threat that must be violently subdued.
Far too often, officers are summoned to help someone experiencing severe distress. And, far too often, officers do things like kill people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or severely injure people who are threatening to injure themselves.
And, far too often, they’re able to walk away from the ensuing lawsuits because their creativity in “resolving” these issues falls outside of court precedent and clearly established law.
This isn’t one of those cases, fortunately. The Supreme Court may have conjured qualified immunity into existence and spent the following decades making it easier for law enforcement officers to evade the consequences of their actions, but the doctrine still somehow remains less than a forgone conclusion.
That’s the case here in a lawsuit that has made its way to Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court. This court says it’s unlawful to injure a compliant person for absolutely no fucking reason, especially when the stated intent of the interaction was to prevent someone from becoming more injured.
Iraq war veteran Kirby Ingram was having a terrible day. Thanks to the “intervention” of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, it soon became much, much worse. From the decision [PDF]:
Ingram is an Iraq War veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In October 2017, while suffering from a mental-health crisis, Ingram cut his wrist with a knife at his home. His girlfriend called the Veterans Affairs suicide hotline, which contacted law enforcement. Deputy Louis Kubik and another deputy from Madison County, Alabama, were dispatched to assist Ingram.
When the deputies arrived, Ingram was calm. The deputies searched him multiple times. They confiscated the knife with which Ingram had cut himself. After the search, the deputies knew that he was unarmed.
The deputies (and Ingram’s mother) tried to persuade him to let the deputies take him to the Department of Veteran Affairs. He refused. He asked if he was under arrest. The deputies assured him he wasn’t. Ingram again stated he would cooperate if they did wish to arrest him. They again stated they weren’t going to arrest him.
So, being free to go, Ingram went. He exited through the back door of the house and “ran into a cotton field.” The deputies pursued him. Eventually, Ingram stopped and the deputies again approached him. They said if he would go back to his house and affirmatively refuse medical treatment, they would leave. As the deputies and Ingram walked back to the house, Ingram again affirmed he would cooperate if the deputies decided to arrest him. And, again, the deputies assured Ingram they weren’t going to arrest him.
Then this happened:
When they reached the yard, “Ingram held his hands over his head and told [medical] personnel . . . that he was refusing medical treatment.” The deputies knew that Ingram was unarmed and posed no threat to them. “Without warning, Kubik then grabbed Ingram under his armpits, picked Ingram up, and slammed Ingram to the ground head first, causing Ingram to suffer a serious neck injury.” Ingram alleges that Kubik’s decision to body slam “Ingram was motivated by hostility toward Ingram due to Ingram’s mental illness.” Ingram was taken to the hospital. “A surgeon removed Ingram’s C-2 vertebra and replaced it with a metal rod. The surgeon also fused Ingram’s C-3 and C-4 vertebrae.”
The lower court didn’t exactly say this brutality was fine. It simply said it didn’t need to look too closely at the brutality because no similar brutality allegations were currently on file in the circuit.
After [Sheriff] Dorning, Kubik, and Turner moved to dismiss the claims against them, the district court granted their motions. The district court held that there was no unlawful seizure because Kubik had probable cause to seize Ingram. On the excessive-force claim, the district court held that Kubik was entitled to qualified immunity because Ingram “ha[d] not shown that his constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the seizure,” so there was “no need to decide if his constitutional right was violated.”
That’s the way the nation’s top court has set up qualified immunity examinations. So, that’s the way the lower court handled it. Fortunately, the Appeals Court is willing to actually examine the claims, rather than just defer to the hands-off approach encouraged by the Supreme Court.
While the court finds Deputy Kubik had probable cause to seize Ingram due to there being enough probable cause to support allegations that Ingram might continue injuring himself, this did not justify the injuries Kubik caused by deploying excessive force while carrying out this seizure.
Kubik argues that body slamming Ingram was justified because it “had the immediate effect of immobilizing him using nonlethal force and preventing any further threat from [Ingram], either to himself or to the officers.” Kubik also asserts that he “took advantage of an opportunity to physically detain [Ingram]—a former soldier experiencing a mental health crisis who had tried to commit suicide—after he had stopped running and the officers had caught up to him.” And Kubik maintains that he did not violate Ingram’s rights because of Ingram’s “aberrant and erratic conduct.” We disagree.
The deputies had searched Ingram and confiscated the knife with which he had cut himself, so they knew he was unarmed. Before Kubik body slammed him, Ingram had his hands over his head. And there was no sign that he sought to flee when he was seized. Accepting these allegations as true, Ingram “was not actively resisting arrest, and there is no [allegation] that he struggled with the police” at the time of the seizure. Although Kubik could lawfully seize Ingram, the “extent of the injury [he] inflicted” was significant enough to confirm the already tenuous nature of the relationship between the “need for application of force” and the “amount of force used.”
The court then goes on to cite several analogous cases the lower court apparently couldn’t Google when it performed its half-ass analysis of Deputy Kubik’s assault on an unresistant person whose only crime was attempting to harm themselves. After several paragraphs of quotes from applicable cases, the Appeals Court arrives at this conclusion.
Our precedents clearly established that Kubik could not use grossly disproportionate, gratuitous, and seriously injurious force against a non-resisting, compliant, and docile subject like Ingram. Ingram was unarmed. He posed no threat to Kubik. He had his hands over his head. And he reiterated that he would cooperate with any arrest. When Kubik body slammed Ingram headfirst without warning and caused a severe neck injury, that force was “utterly disproportionate to the level of force reasonably necessary” in that circumstance.
Not only is Kubik going to have to continue being sued, but his supervisor, (now former) Sheriff Blake Dorning has been stripped of immunity as well. Dorning may not have been present during this violation of rights, but Ingram submitted plenty of evidence showing the sheriff has repeatedly refused to investigate, much less punish, officers accused of excessive force or other misconduct. Since the record shows Dorning showed no interest in reining in excessive force deployment, this issue will also go in front of a jury. (And there’s plenty of evidence showing Dorning was a terrible sheriff that anyone with a search bar can easily access.)
Given what’s been shown so far in this case, it would make sense to settle. This would save the Sheriff from having to possibly admit in court he’s incapable or unwilling to control his officers. And it would allow the county and its sheriff’s department to spend taxpayers’ money to cover the cost of this wrongdoing. This solution obviously screws taxpayers, but maybe they’ll be a bit more careful who they pick to handle the job the next time a sheriff is up for election.
Filed Under: 11th circuit, blake dorning, kirby ingram, louis kubik, madison county, madison county sheriff’s department, police brutality, qualified immunity