Precedent is an absolutely vital part of American jurisprudence. Judges look to previous court cases to help guide them through their decision making process. Judges attempt to distinguish cases that are different, and analogize similar cases. Precedent adds an amount of stability to our justice system. But what happens when the outcomes of seemingly similar cases appear contradictory? The case of Khan v. Normand, et al. helps illustrate the importance of precedent in the context of the tragic death of a man in police custody and illustrates how judges can look at the same precedents and reach very different conclusions.
On July 17, 2007, Nayeem Khan, a man with a history of mental illness, began to run around a grocery store yelling that people outside were going to kill him. While visibly upset and delusional, Mr. Khan was also suffering from a drug-induced psychosis at the time of this incident. After managing to handcuff him, store security guards, and an off-duty sheriff’s deputy that happened to be in the store at the time of the incident, contacted the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. When deputies began to remove Mr. Khan from the store, he physically resisted. Eventually deputies restrained Mr. Khan by handcuffing both his hands and legs behind his body and connecting his hand and leg restraints with another pair of handcuffs. This meant Mr. Khan was in a four-point restraint which effectively hog-tied him. Mr. Khan began to have great difficulty breathing almost immediately, and deputies removed the restraints and administered CPR until an ambulance arrived. Mr. Khan began to breathe again, but tragically died later that night.
Mr. Khan’s parents sued the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the individual deputies involved in their son’s restraint alleging excessive force and violations of Nayeem’s constitutional rights. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office sought a summary judgment alleging that the deputies were protected from liability on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court agreed, and granted the motion for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity which prevents government officials from being sued while in the course of performing their official duties.
The majority states that in order to successfully overcome a claim of qualified immunity by a government official, a plaintiff must show two things:
1) the official in question violated a statutory or constitutional right, AND
2) the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct
If the plaintiff fails to meet both of these prongs, then their case cannot proceed and, as the 5th Circuit did here, the decision to grant a motion for summary judgment for the defendants may be affirmed.
In this case, the majority found the second prong to be dispositive. The majority explains that in order for a right to be clearly established, “the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer would understand that what he is doing violates that right.”
To determine whether or not the use of a four-point restraint constituted excessive force, the majority then looked to two prior 5th Circuit cases where people died after being hog-tied.
First, in the Gutierrez case, the 5th Circuit held that in certain limited circumstances, the use of a four-point restraint may rise to the level of excessive force and placed a special emphasis on the “danger of hog-tying a drug-affected person.” Mr. Gutierrez, who was visibly in the midst of drug-induced episode, died while in the back of a patrol car after being hog-tied. During a portion of his time hog-tied in the patrol car, Mr. Gutierrez was left unmonitored by the police. Mr. Gutierrez’s family filed suit, and the suit survived a motion for summary judgment filed by the San Antonio Police Department. The 5th Circuit concluded that Mr. Gutierrez’s family had raised issues of material fact as to whether or not the police’s use of a four-point restraint rose to the level of excessive force, and that the use of such restraints was not necessarily objectively reasonable.
In the Hill case, the 5th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s grant of a motion for summary judgment for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department in Mississippi. The plaintiff the case was the administratrix of Debbie Loggins who died after being hog-tied and placed in the back of a cop car after getting into an altercation with deputies. Expert testimony indicated that while Ms. Loggins was under the influence of narcotics at the time of her restraint, this influence was not readily apparent to those on the scene. This was enough for the lower court to rule in favor of the Sheriff’s Department and grant their motion for summary judgment.
The majority used the two very different outcomes of these cases to determine that, in the 5th Circuit, the use of a four-point restraint was neither objectively reasonable per se, nor objectively unreasonable per se. Thus the majority concluded that there was no clearly established right against being placed in a four-point restraint, and the lower court’s ruling was upheld.
This is the first of a two part post, with the next entry discussing Judge Garza’s strong dissent in this case. As always, if you need legal advice, please contact the Berniard Law Firm.