On January 23, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Del Valle v. Thorne and Del Valle v. Zastrow[i], in which the court examined whether two deputies were entitled to qualified immunity for an alleged use of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Del Valle, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In September 2016, Thorne and Zastrow, who were then Sonoma County deputy sheriffs, responded to a neighbor’s call about a domestic dispute at Del Valle’s house. The neighbor reported that the dispute sounded verbal, not physical, and that Del Valle’s wife sounded like the aggressor. The deputies arrived to find Del Valle alone in a locked bedroom. Bodycam footage shows that when Thorne kicked open the door and entered, Del Valle was lying shirtless on the bed, using a cellphone with both hands in view. Thorne ordered Del Valle several times to stand up. Del Valle did not do so, instead stating calmly that he was calling his lawyer. Thorne reached out four times to grab Del Valle’s right forearm, and each time Del Valle pulled his arm out of Thorne’s grasp. On the fifth occasion, Thorne appeared to reach for Del Valle’s cellphone, causing Del Valle to push Thorne’s arm away. Immediately, Thorne discharged his taser into Del Valle’s bare chest from close range. Several seconds later, Thorne struck Del Valle’s right knee with a baton.[ii]“
Additionally, Deputy Zastrow, allegedly held Del Valle’s legs while Deputy Thorne struck him with baton and applied a six-second carotid restraint.
Del Valle filed suit and alleged that Deputy Thorne violated his right to be free from unreasonable, excessive force under the Fourth Amendment by tasing him. He also sued Deputy Zastrow and alleged that he violated his right to be free from unreasonable, excessive force under the Fourth Amendment as an “integral participant,” even though he did not use force against Del Valle. The deputies filed motions for qualified immunity and the district court denied the motions. The deputies then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The first issue before the court of appeals was whether Deputy Thorne was entitled to qualified immunity from suit. In order to defeat the deputy’s motion for qualified immunity, a plaintiff must meet a two-pronged test.
First, the plaintiff must show that his constitutional rights were violated. Second, the plaintiff must then show that the law was “clearly established” such that any reasonable deputy in the same situation would have known that the conduct was unlawful under the constitution.
The court then set out to determine the first prong of the test for qualified immunity, particularly whether Deputy Thorne violated the Fourth Amendment. The court used the factors from Graham v. Connor[iii] to analyze whether the force used by Deputy Thorne was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The factors the court considered are (1) the seriousness of the crime(s) Del Valle committed, (2) whether Del Valle posed a threat to the officer or others, and (3) whether Del Valle actively resisted.
The court of appeals first noted that Del Valle had not committed any serious crimes. Second, the court noted that Del Valle had not been verbally or physically aggressive and did not pose a threat to anyone. Lastly, the court noted that, while Del Valle did actively resist Deputy Thorne’s attempts to grab his arm and his phone, this “resistance did not involve any violent actions towards the officers.”[iv] Therefore, the court of appeals held that Deputy Thorne’s use of force in this situation was violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court then set out to determine the second prong of test for qualified immunity, particularly whether the law was “clearly established” such that a reasonable deputy in the same situation would have known the use of the taser violated the Fourth Amendment. Regarding this, the court of appeals stated
[I]t was clearly established at the time of Thorne’s actions that discharging a taser on a non-threatening individual who had not committed a serious crime and had not engaged in aggressive or violent resistance would violate the Fourth Amendment. See Mattos, 661 F.3d at 445-46; see also Bonivert v. City of Clarkston, 883 F.3d 865, 880 (9th Cir. 2018).[v]
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity for Deputy Thorne.
The court then set out to determine if Deputy Zastrow was entitled to qualified immunity. Del Valle acknowledge that Deputy Zastrow did not personally use force against him, but rather held his legs as Deputy Thorne struck him with a baton and administered a six-second carotid restraint hold. As such, Del Valle argued that Deputy Zastrow was liable as an “integral participant” to Deputy Thorne’s use of excessive force.
The court of appeals examined the law related to liability as an “integral participant.” The court stated
A defendant officer may be held liable as an integral participant in another officer’s constitutional violation if the defendant was “aware of the [other officer’s] decision” to violate the law, “did not object to it,” and “participated in some meaningful way” in the violation. Boyd v. Benton County, 374 F.3d 773, 780 (9th Cir. 2004).[vi]
Regarding the six-second carotid restraint, Deputy Zastrow stated that he did not know that Deputy Thorn was doing that because Thorne’s body blocked his view. Del Valle offered no evidence to dispute Deputy Zastrow’s account. Regarding the baton strikes, the court stated that Del Valle did not present any evidence to show that Deputy Zastrow was aware that Deputy Thorne was about to use his baton and did not present any evidence to show that Deputy Zastrow had an opportunity to object to the use of the baton. The court further noted that under the circumstances, the use of the baton occurred with “minimal forewarning.”[vii]
Therefore, the court of appeals held that Del Valle failed to show that Deputy Zastrow violated his rights by being an “integral participant” and, as such, he was entitled to qualified immunity.
[i] No. 19-15313, 19-15350 (9th Cir. Decided January 23, 2020 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
[iv] Del Valle at 3-4
[v] Id. at 4 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 5