ESCONDIDO — After its sojourn to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case Marty Emmons v. City of Escondido has begun anew in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, with both parties filing opening briefs for the case in early March.
In January, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Appeals Court, a case that has continued for nearly four and a half years after it was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in October 2014.
The case centers on the concept of qualified immunity for police officers, a principle created to give police officers and departments the benefit of the doubt during use-of-force incidents.
Emmons v. Escondido involved an incident that took place at an apartment close to the city’s downtown core.
The Escondido Police Department came to the dwelling rented out by the daughter of the plaintiff, Maggie Emmons, in response to a 911 call made to the department by her roommate’s mother.
The mother had heard screaming on the phone while talking to her daughter.
Officers arrived to do a welfare check in response to that call, but both Maggie and Marty Emmons denied the officers entry into the apartment, instead choosing to speak to them through the window.
After the tension escalated between the parties, Marty Emmons attempted to leave the apartment and close the door behind him, but was swiftly tackled to the ground.
Marty Emmons was subsequently arrested, accused of obstructing a police offer for refusing to open the door and then closing the door behind him against the command of the officer.
Marty Emmons alleges that the police rushed to apply force on him, acting outside the bounds of the Fourth Amendment constitutional protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“This is another case in which officers use force as a first (and unnecessary) option, then charge the individual with resisting/obstruction as a shield from potential civil liability for their use of excessive force,” reads the opening brief filed by attorneys from San Diego-based Singleton Law Firm. “It was clear, at the time of this incident, that tackling an unarmed, non-threatening, elderly man, who did not see the officers or hear any command by the officers before being tackled by the officers, would be a violation of the elderly man’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force.”
The city of Escondido countered in its opening brief that its officers acted well within the bounds of the qualified immunity legal doctrine.
In the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, the court defined qualified immunity as what a “reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right,” with “that right” those defined under the Fourth Amendment.
“Emmons’ actions only served to dial up rather than dial down the concerns around the circumstances and the potential need to use some level of force,” wrote City Attorney Michael McGuinness in the city’s opening brief. “Who was this man and why did he just exit unannounced as he did? Why was he determined to close the door and to do so quickly? Is he the reason that the mother of an occupant of an apartment called 911 and reported screams for help followed by a disconnection? Is he armed? Does he intend to fight? Does he intend to flee?”
McGuinness told The Coast News that for the Escondido Police Department, the “only force used on (Emmons) was minimal, measured and brief,” and thus, within the bounds of the qualified immunity doctrine.
“It is the Plaintiff’s burden to identify the clearly established law existing at the time of the event prohibiting the officer’s conduct in this case (i.e. showing that it was ‘unreasonable’ and therefore unconstitutional),” McGuinness said in an emailed response.
Emmons’ legal team said its problem is with the very premise of the qualified immunity doctrine itself.
“Over the past couple of decades, this prong has become increasingly difficult for victims of police misconduct to overcome,” attorney Brody McBride told The Coast News. “This is because the Supreme Court has required victims to identify a past case or cases (from the circuit courts and/or the Supreme Court), in which the court found virtually identical conduct by officers to be unconstitutional.”
Neither McGuinness nor McBride could say when the case will proceed to oral arguments and then a final court ruling.