On February 15, 2022, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Craig v. Martin[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Craig are as follows:
Officer Martin received a call dispatching him to a “disturbance” in the South Division of Fort Worth. The initial 9-1-1 call came from a middle-aged male, stating that several people were on his property arguing, had refused to leave, and were intentionally throwing trash in his yard. A subsequent 9-1-1 call came from the man’s neighbor Jacqueline Craig, complaining that the man had grabbed her son by the neck because the boy had allegedly littered.
Martin responded to the call alone. He activated his body camera as soon as he arrived at the scene. One of Craig’s daughters, Brea Hymond, also recorded the event on her cell phone. Martin first spoke with the male complainant; Martin then approached Craig to obtain her version of the events. Craig told Martin that the man had grabbed her son, A.C., after A.C. had allegedly littered. In response, Martin asked: “Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?” Craig, visibly agitated, told Martin that it did not matter whether her son had littered; the man did not have the right to put his hands on her son. Martin replied: “Why not?”
Craig started to shout at Martin after this provocation. Martin asked why she was shouting at him, to which Craig responded: “Because you just pissed me off telling me what I teach my kids and what I don’t.” Martin replied in a calm voice: “If you keep yelling at me, you’re going to piss me off, and I’m going to take you to jail.” Immediately after this exchange, J.H., Craig’s fifteen-year-old daughter, stepped between Craig and Martin and put her hands on Craig’s forearms. Martin grabbed J.H. and pulled her away from her mother.
Moments later, K.H., Craig’s fourteen-year-old daughter, began to walk around Martin’s right side; K.H. then pushed Martin in the left side of his back, using most—if not all—of her body weight. Martin pulled his taser and yelled, “Get on the ground!” Martin then allegedly “shov[ed]” his taser into the middle of Craig’s back and “threw her to the ground.” Craig claims that, as she was going to the ground, her “left arm and shoulder blade [were] still suspended in [Martin’s] grip—causing [her] severe pain.” The video does not show any throwing or slamming motion; however, it does show Martin holding Craig’s left arm and releasing it as Craig slowly descends to the ground.
Martin handcuffed Craig and then walked over to J.H. Again, he shouted: “Get on the ground!” J.H., who was initially still standing, squatted to the ground as Martin moved closer to her. Martin approached her, grabbed her left arm and the back of her neck, and placed her on the ground.
Martin then walked Craig and J.H. to his vehicle. As Martin approached the rear passenger door of the vehicle, K.H. appeared from behind the back of the vehicle. She stood in front of the passenger door in an apparent attempt to block Martin from placing Craig and J.H. in the vehicle. Martin shouted: “Get back, or you’re going to jail too,” to which K.H. responded: “I don’t care.” Martin allegedly “struck” K.H. in the throat, moving her out of the way. Martin then attempted to get J.H. into the vehicle. J.H. resisted, leaving her left leg hanging out of the vehicle. Martin repeatedly told her to get in the police cruiser, but she refused. He then allegedly “kick[ed]” J.H.’s left leg into the vehicle.
Martin next went to arrest Hymond, who had been verbally harassing him throughout his arrests of Craig and J.H. Martin grabbed Hymond by the wrist, put her up against the side of the police vehicle, and attempted to wrangle her cell phone out of her hands. He handcuffed her and then put her up against the vehicle a second time. Hymond refused to respond to Martin’s questions about her name and age, so Martin raised her handcuffed arms behind her back in an attempt to obtain compliance. Hymond claims this maneuver caused “[e]xcruciating pain”; however, the video shows that the maneuver had little to any effect on Hymond. She continued to yell at Martin as he raised her arms and immediately after he lowered them. Martin then escorted Hymond into a second police vehicle that had just arrived at the scene.[ii]
Craig sued Officer Martin for unlawful arrest and excessive force on behalf of her children, J.H. and K.H., and herself, and Hymond also filed suit on the same grounds. The district court granted the officer qualified immunity on the unlawful arrest claims and denied qualified immunity on the excessive force claims. Officer Martin appealed the denial of qualified immunity on the excessive force claim to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals first noted that at this stage of the litigation (a motion for qualified immunity), the court is required to view the facts that are in dispute in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. As such, the district court denied the motion for qualified immunity on the excessive force claim because the court felt that the facts could allow a jury to conclude the officer used excessive force. However, there is an exception to the requirement that the court view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff; this exception is when there is video that contradicts the plaintiff’s version of the facts. The court stated
Normally, “[t]he plaintiff’s factual assertions are taken as true to determine whether they are legally sufficient to defeat the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.” However, if there is video evidence that “blatantly contradict[s]” the plaintiffs’ allegations, the court should not adopt the plaintiffs’ version of the facts; instead, the court should view those facts “in the light depicted by the videotape.” At oral argument, plaintiffs’ counsel conceded that the uses of force at issue are captured in the video evidence.[iii]
The court then discussed qualified immunity and noted that, when an officer asserts qualified immunity as a defense, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to satisfy the two prongs that are required to defeat qualified immunity. First, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to establish that the officer violated a statutory or constitutional right. Second, the plaintiff must show that the law was “clearly established” such that any reasonable officer in the same circumstance would have known that his conduct was unlawful.
The court of appeals then set out to determine if Officer Martin violated the Fourth Amendment with regard to using unreasonable or excessive force in the arrests of Craig, J.H., C.H. and Hymond.
The court first noted the legal principles relevant to an excessive force analysis and stated
To prevail on a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, a plaintiff must show “(1) an injury (2) which resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable. “Excessive force claims are necessarily fact intensive; whether the force used is ‘excessive’ or ‘unreasonable’ depends on ‘the facts and circumstances of each particular case.'”
“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” “Factors to consider include, ‘the severity of the crime at issue; whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether [the suspect] is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.'” “The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”[iv]
The court, in consideration of the above legal principles, then set out to determine whether Officer Martin used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court first examined the force used against Craig. The court noted that while Officer Martin was trying to arrest Craig, J.H. and K.H. were actively, physically interfering with the arrest. Officer Martin then took his Taser, placed it to Craig’s back and pushed her toward the ground, while maintaining control of her arm to slow her descent to the ground. He did not discharge the Taser. Craig alleged that the officer “shoved” her to the ground. The video showed that he pushed Craig to the ground but kept control of her arm to control her descent. The court of appeals held
Under the circumstances, it was not objectively unreasonable for Martin to grab Craig and force her to the ground to effectuate her arrest. Martin was the only police officer at the scene, he had just been pushed from behind, and he was facing numerous people who were shouting and jostling as he attempted to separate Craig from the crowd and arrest her.[v]
Thus, the court held that Officer Martin did not use excessive force with Martin.
The court then examined Officer Martin’s use of force with J.H. The evidence showed that Officer Martin took J.H. to the ground and then kicked her leg as she refused to put it in the police vehicle. The court noted that
Physical force may be necessary to ensure compliance when a suspect “refus[es] to comply with instructions.” However, “officers must assess not only the need for force, but also ‘the relationship between the need and the amount of force used.'” A use of force is reasonable if an officer uses “‘measured and ascending actions’ that correspond to [a suspect’s] escalating verbal and physical resistance.”[vi]
The evidence showed that J.H. was interfering with Officer Martin’s attempt to handcuff Craig and refused verbal commands to cease and “get on the ground.” This is what prompted Officer Martin to physically put J.H. on the ground. Regarding, kicking her leg, the evidence showed that J.H. was arguing with Officer Martin and refused to put her leg in the police vehicle. Officer Martin then used his leg to force her leg into the car, all as he held Craig with one arm and the door to the vehicle with the other arm.
As such, the court held that Officer Martin did not use excessive force with respect to J.H.
The court then examined the force used on K.H. The evidence showed that as Officer Martin was attempting to place Craig and J.H. in the patrol vehicle, K.H. physically interfered in that process by getting in between the parties and blocking the officer. He ordered her to “get back” or she would be arrested. She replied that she did not care. K.H. alleged that the officer struck her in the throat. The court stated that Officer Martin’s use of force on K.H. had limited effect on her, and was not unreasonable in light of fact that she had physically assaulted the officer by pushing him and was interfering in the arrests of Craig and J.H. The court called Officer Martin’s use of force on K.H. “relatively minimal.”
Thus, the court held that Officer Martin did not use excessive force with respect to K.H.
Lastly, the court examined the use of force with respect to Hymond. The evidence showed that Hymond shouted at Officer Martin throughout the incident and did not obey his verbal commands. She refused to provide the officer her name and he handcuffed her. Hymond continued to verbally deride the officer as he lifted her handcuffed arms up behind her back and then put her arms back down, noting that lifting her arms did not seem to effect Hymond. The court stated that, “given Hymond’s continued resistance, [Officer] Martin’s use of force against Hymond was not objectively unreasonable.”[vii]
Thus, the court held that Officer Martin did not use excessive force against Hymond.
Therefore, since the plaintiff’s were unable to satisfy the first prong of the test to defeat qualified immunity, particularly that the officer violated the plaintiff’s rights, Officer Martin was entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claim.
The court of appeals also examined the second prong of the qualified immunity analysis, which is whether the law was clearly established such that any reasonable officer in the same situation would have known his conduct was unlawful. The court stated
At the second step of the qualified immunity analysis, we consider whether Martin’s use of force “violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable [officer] would have known.” For a right to be clearly established, “existing precedent must have placed the . . . constitutional question beyond debate.” “[N]o reasonable officer could believe the act was lawful.” “That is because qualified immunity is inappropriate only where the officer had ‘fair notice’—’in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition’—that his particular conduct was unlawful.” Thus, “police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent ‘squarely governs’ the specific facts at issue.” “[S]pecificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where . . . it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.”[viii]
After a review of cases cited by the plaintiff’s, the court of appeals held that the law was not clearly established that Officer Martin’s conduct was unlawful at the time of the incident. As such, even if the plaintiff’s were able to show that Officer Martin used excessive force, he would still be entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established regarding his conduct in this case.
Therefore, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity.
[i] No. 19-10013 (5th Cir. Decided February 15, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 9
[vi] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 12
[viii] Id. at 12-13 (emphasis added)