ESCONDIDO — In an April 25 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit concluded that the Escondido Police Department did not commit an unconstitutional violation during a May 2013 altercation in which a resident was tackled to the ground.
The Appeals Court was tasked with answering the question, under U.S. constitutional law, if “clearly established law prohibit(s) the officers from stopping and taking down a man in these circumstances?”
The original plaintiff in the federal case which began in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in 2014, Marty Emmons, alleges that the police acted outside the bounds of the Fourth Amendment constitutional protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by rushing to use force on him at the time.
The city of Escondido has argued that the “qualified immunity” doctrine developed over years of federal court rulings prevents such a legal complaint from bearing fruit.
Qualified immunity gives broad deference to law enforcement during use of force incidents.
Emanating from the 2011 9th Circuit case Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, that ruling created a test of what a “reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.”
Looking at the stack of case law on the books, the court ruled in favor of the Escondido Police Department.
Pointing to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court Kisela v. Hughes, the 9th Circuit ruled that Emmons would have had to found an appellate court case with a nearly mirror image fact pattern in which the plaintiff won on similar grounds to pass legal muster.
“Use of excessive force is an area of the law ‘in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case,’ and thus police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent ‘squarely governs’ the specific facts at issue,” the Supreme Court ruled in Kisela v. Hughes.
After doing its own research, the Appeals Court concluded it could not find such a case and that the ones Emmons cited did not fit that bill either. And thus, the officers at the scene in 2013 were “entitled to qualified immunity,” the court ruled.
Trenton Lamere, an attorney for the Singleton Law Firm — which represented Emmons in the case — said he believes the ruling points to broader issues inherent in what he called the “legal fiction” of the qualified immunity doctrine itself.
“Despite there being several prior cases in which similar conduct was found to be unconstitutional, the Ninth Circuit (following recent Supreme Court guidance) concluded these prior cases didn’t provide enough ‘warning’ to police officers that tackling an unarmed, non-threatening elderlyman would violate the Fourth Amendment,” Lamere wrote via email. “These officers are individually immune from even having to defend against this lawsuit. And to make matters worse, the Ninth Circuit (again following Supreme Court guidance) refused even to analyze whether the conduct alleged in this case would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
Just two weeks before the Appeals Court published its ruling, a consortium of cross-ideological groups and legal scholars petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the qualified immunity doctrine.
Lamere said his firm will continue the federal civil lawsuit alleging that Escondido Police committed a constitutional violation under the legal precedent set forth in the case Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York.
Monell is a 1978 U.S. Supreme decision which determined that municipalities can be held liable for conduct which results in constitutional violations, as well as decisions to “ratify or approve unconstitutional conduct after the fact,” Lamere explained.
Emmons alleged a Monell violation in his initial 2014 U.S. District Court complaint, but the court issued a summary judgment ruling which only grappled with the qualified immunity doctrine, dismissing only the claims asserted against the individual officers.
City of Escondido attorney Michael McGuinness did not respond to a request for comment for this article by press time.