Tony Timpa Died After Cops Kneeled on His Back and Joked About It. A Court Says His Family Can Sue.

Tony Timpa’s family was not allowed to sue police officers for causing his death. They pinned him down for 15 minutes, while he pleaded for help. Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil scrutiny if they are alleged to have misbehaved.

In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 5th Circuit overturned the ruling of the district court and allowed Timpa’s relatives to bring their cases before a juror. That right—to state your case before a panel of your peers—is easily taken for granted. However, victims of government abuse have to fight a long and difficult battle for their right to make this happen.

Timpa was 32 years old when he passed away on August 10, 2016. He called 911 to ask for assistance. Although he had schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder, he had not taken his medication that day. He also had used cocaine. The Dallas Police Department (DPD) officers who responded to him—Sgt. Kevin Mansell, Senior Corporal Raymond Dominguez, and officers Dustin Dillard and Danny Vasquez—were aware of this: The 911 operator told them, and Timpa himself admitted it.

Timpa was put on his stomach and cuffed with his hands and ankles by cops. The officers kept Timpa in a prone position for over 14 minutes. Vasquez put his knee in Timpa’s back the first 2 minutes, and Dillard continued the practice for the rest of the time. “Help me!…You’re gonna kill me!” He yelled. After three minutes, he became unresponsive and was later declared dead.

The officers are heard laughing at Timpa’s apparent lack of consciousness on the body-cam footage. Dillard replied, “I believe he’s sleeping!” when Dillard was asked if Timpa still breathes. Dillard said that he could hear him “snoring” and that it was his fault. Vasquez, Dominguez, and Vasquez joined the conversation. They joked that Timpa was an old schoolboy who doesn’t want go to class but can be lured from bed by “tutti friutti waffles.”

5th Circuit rejected the lower court’s decision not to allow the jury to hear the case. DPD training stated that subjects in excited delirium should be treated as soon as they can.[,] [be]Move[ed]…to a recovery position (on [their]Side-to-side ),'” judge Edith Brown Clement wrote, “because prolonged use a propped restraint could result in an increased oxygen demand along with failure to maintain a open airway or inhibition of the chest wall/diaphragm [that]”has been mentioned in positional asphyxia death.” Her observation is that her training specifically states that sudden death of a subject can be a sign of his dying.

Qualified immunity isn’t just a result of an officer’s training. The victim needs to find an identical court precedent. This is because cops tend to be more inclined than officers themselves, in that they are less likely to understand case law text. Denver officers have been granted qualified immunity to search a man’s tablet, delete videos of them beating suspects and attempt to obtain a warrant for the same.

Timpa and his family are fortunate to have a precedent. Clement says that “within the Fifth Circuit the law has been long established that an officer’s continued use force on a restricted and subdued person is objectively unreasonable.” For those who were curious about the granularity of qualified immunity, Clement explains that officers had convinced the lower courts that they did not apply to placing a knee on someone’s back.

Easha, Supreme Court appellate counsel and Supreme Court Supreme Court judge at the MacArthur Justice Center as well as an attorney representing Timpa’s estate said that this opinion “gives cause for optimism” and “pessimism”. “The 5th Circuit has reaffirmed now as a matter of doctrine, which is reason to be optimistic. [that]It doesn’t matter if there is only one difference between cases 1 and 2, it does not make sense. Pessimists will be disappointed to hear that the court decision was “not taken out of thin air,” she said. The decision of whether an alleged victim has the privilege to stand before a juror will depend on the judges that hear him and their determination as to the degree of detail required to “clearly established” his constitutional right.

Pessimism is also due to the fact that the government can drag these suits out with appeal after appeal until months turn into years while victims wait to even have the chance. AskA jury may be appointed if appropriate. The city of Dallas sought to extend the hearing, which was unsuccessfully granted. According to the petition by the city, its lawyers claim that Timpa was killed before George Floyd started a nationwide conversation about the excessive use of prone restraint.

I don’t believe that any courtroom proceedings can provide relief. [the family’s]Anand says that pain is a common emotion. But I do hope Judge Clement will at least give the family the impression that he has heard the story and understood the severity of the injustice. The next court will decide if they agree.