“Renewed hope” for Southern courts as qualified immunity case is reversed.

32-year-old Tony Timpa was killed by Dallas police on Aug. 10, 2016
Anthony Timpa was killed by Dallas police after he called them for help. (Photo; Timpa family)

A picture of a white man on the internet with a caption that read something like “after a policeman kneeled on his neck for 14 minutes, his family can finally…” so I clicked it and to my amazement, it hit right at home for me because the first sentence in the MSN article reads. “Civil rights attorneys say that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – which hears appeals from federal courts in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana – is where righteous police misconduct cases go to die”.

I see a lot of news about civil rights issues in the northern states and sometimes we see something from the Innocence Project out of New Orleans, but for the most part, no one talks about how bad the courts are in the South. Curious, I click around and find the original article from USA and the Timpa v. Dillard case that is being discussed. Justia’s summary of Timpa v. Dillard states:

 “Anthony Timpa’s family filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit, alleging that five officers of the Dallas Police Department violated Timpa’s Fourth Amendment rights by causing his death through the prolonged use of a prone restraint with bodyweight force during his arrest. Plaintiffs asserted claims of excessive force and of bystander liability.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the officers as to the excessive force claims. Viewing the facts in the light most positive to plaintiffs, the court concluded that none of the Graham factors justified the prolonged use of force. In this case, a jury could find that Timpa was subdued by nine minutes into the restraint and that the continued use of force was objectively unreasonable in violation of Timpa’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court also concluded that plaintiffs have raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the use of a prone restraint with bodyweight force on an individual with three apparent risk factors—obesity, physical exhaustion, and excited delirium—created a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury. Furthermore, the record supports that Timpa was subdued nine minutes into the continuing restraint and did not pose a threat of serious harm. Finally, the court held that the state of the law in August 2016 clearly established that an officer engages in an objectively unreasonable application of force by continuing to kneel on the back of an individual who has been subdued.

In regard to bystander liability claims, the court concluded that genuine disputes of material fact preclude summary judgment on these claims against Officers Mansell, Dominguez, and Vasquez. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s judgment as to these claims. The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the bystander liability claim against Officer Rivera.”

Experts are saying that there is “renewed hope for those whose constitutional rights have been violated to get justice in court”. Does justice happen in court? Let’s study the case more to find out what is going on. Surely true justice will be done when Judgement Day finally arrives. No dead are going to rise before that day and there is not enough money in the world to buy the justice that people seek.

Sadly, this turns out to be another case where police were called to handle a mental health/medical condition. “Tony Timpa called the Dallas police in August 2016 to ask for help. The 32-year-old, white, college-educated executive was off the medication he usually took for anxiety and schizophrenia, as he told the police dispatcher. But when five Dallas police officers arrived on the side of the road where Timpa was, they did not give him the help he needed. Instead, they handcuffed him behind his back, zip-tied his feet, and Officer Dustin Dillard put his knee and bodyweight on Timpa’s back. The officers’ body cameras recorded Timpa crying for help, pleading with them, saying “you’re gonna kill me!” over and over again. After nine minutes under Officer Dillard’s knee, Timpa stopped moving. After 11 minutes, Timpa went limp, then silent. The officers joked and laughed that Timpa had fallen asleep. All of this was caught on the officers’ body cameras. They had been trained that keeping someone in a prone position under an officer’s bodyweight was dangerous”, stated Joanna Schwartz, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, “But Dillard kneeled on Timpa for more than 14 minutes. When an ambulance arrived, Dillard can be heard in the body camera video saying, ‘I hope I didn’t kill him.’ More laughter”.

Timpa’s family sued and a Texas judge granted qualified immunity to the officers that killed Tony Timpa. Schwartz says, “the judge hearing Timpa v. Dillard assumed that the officers violated the Constitution, but granted them qualified immunity from a civil lawsuit because there was no prior court case holding that it was unconstitutional to hold an unarmed person in a prone position for more than 14 minutes”.

Qualified immunity is a term that is used when professionals are not held responsible for criminal acts committed against citizens. Schwartz goes on to point out that “Supreme Court’s decisions have repeatedly made clear that the law is not clearly established unless there is a prior court decision with nearly identical facts”. It sounds like a lame excuse allow criminals to control entire cities. Right?

“A court found in a previous case that officers used excessive force when they hogtied a person – restraining his hands and feet behind his back and placed him face down, killing him. But the judge concluded that the prior case did not ‘clearly establish’ that what the officers did to Timpa was unconstitutional”. Southern courts really are messed up. What is the judge looking for here? “So, he was not hogtied. Based on that minor factual distinction, the judge concluded the law was not clearly established and dismissed the lawsuit” stated Schwartz.

But the Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision on December 15th and made it clear that the officers did violate Timpa’s Fourth Amendment Right and thereby are not entitled to qualified immunity. Further, the appeals court also said that Timpa’s family did not need to find a prior court decision where force was used under the same circumstances to get past qualified immunity.

UCLA Professor Joanna Schwartz determined that “perhaps the judges were persuaded by wide-ranging criticisms of qualified immunity doctrine, or to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Taylor v. Riojas that determined prior similar cases were unnecessary when a constitutional violation is obvious. Whatever the reason, the Timpa case is an important decision for people whose rights have been violated in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana”.

A more hopeful explanation of the case is presented by Howard University’s Law Professor Tiffany Wright in Joanna Schwartz’s original USA article, “He died after a cop kneeled on his neck for 14 minutes. Now, his family can finally sue”, as she explains what qualified immunity is, how it works, and why this case brings hope to the South.

Original article: He died after a cop kneeled on his neck for 14 minutes. Now, his family can finally sue.

Timpa v. Dillard summary: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca5/20-10876/20-10876-2021-12-15.html

Minding Hearts is building advocacy and peer support groups in each state.  The groups are created to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for those that might not otherwise be heard. We are here for encouragement, education, and support. We cannot give legal advice, but we can try and direct you in the right direction with your case. Links to legal services are listed with their states. Please share and let’s grow our groups. We are here to support families and develop resources that maintain family integrity. We look forward to your support. If you would rather become active by donating, then visit the donation page.

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