Tony Timpa’s family was not allowed to sue police officers for allegedly causing his death. They pinned him down for approximately 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 (32 years old at the time of his death) called 911 on August 10, 2016 and requested help. 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 placed on his stomach by the cops. They also cuffed and tied his ankles and hands. He remained in the prone position for 14 minutes. Vasquez placed his knee on Timpa’s stomach for two minutes. Dillard repeated the action for 14 minutes. “Help me!…You’re gonna kill me!” He shouted. He stopped responding for three minutes. Then, he was declared dead.
You can hear the officers laughing about Timpa’s loss of consciousness in the footage from the body camera. Dillard answered “I think that he’s asleep!” He said that he had heard Timpa “snoring.” Vasquez and Dominguez then joined the fray, laughing that Timpa wasn’t interested in going to school but could be lured to bed by some “tutti frutti waffles”.
5th Circuit was not persuaded by lower court’s decision that the men were protected from jury. DPD Training stated that any subject who is in an excited state must be extracted from the court’s jurisdiction “as quickly as possible.”[,] [be]Moving[ed]…to a recovery position (on [their]Side or upright Judge Edith Brown Clement writes, “because prolonged use of a restraint can result in an increase in oxygen demand and/or failure to maintain an airway open and/or inhibition the diaphragm and chest wall. [that]has been used in the case of positional asphyxia deaths. It is also noted that the training clearly states that sudden unresponsiveness in a subject may indicate that he might be dying.
However, the officer’s education alone is insufficient to defeat qualified immunity. 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. A group of Denver police officers received qualified immunity after they searched a man’s tablet and tried to delete video footage of them beating someone, in spite of their training.
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 officers continued use of force upon a restrained or subdued person is objectively unreasonable.” If you’re wondering how fine qualified immunity is, the officers convinced Clement that no precedents apply because they don’t specifically relate to kneeling on someone’s back.
Easha Annand (Supreme Court, appellate counsel at MacArthur Justice Center) and Timpa’s attorney says that “this opinion gives cause to optimism and pessimism.” The 5th Circuit’s doctrinal decision has given cause to optimism. [that]If the only thing that distinguishes case 1 and 2 is the type of force used, then it’s not enough. Pessimists will be disappointed to hear that the court decision was “not taken out of thin air,” she said. It is dependent on the judges hearing the case and their decision as to how to determine the degree of detail required to “clearly established” the 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. AskIf damages are necessary, a jury will be convened. The city of Dallas sought to extend the hearing, which was unsuccessfully granted. The city’s lawyers claim that Timpa’s death before George Floyd triggered a national discussion about prone restraint. They couldn’t know that their actions were excessive despite being trained to do so.
“I don’t claim that everything that happens in courtrooms will provide comfort for you. [the family’s]Anand describes the pain as “pain.” 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. Let’s see if Judge Clement agrees.