ARLINGTON, Va.—In a new amicus brief, the Institute for Justice (IJ), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Texas call on the full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a three-judge decision of the same court. The panel held that a Fort Worth, Texas police officer did not use unreasonable force when he wrenched a handcuffed, non-resisting woman’s arms behind her back to make her answer his questions.
“In this country, government officials should not be able to use force and violence to coerce individuals into answering questions,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi, the author of the brief. “Such an action is a blatant constitutional violation.”
In December 2016, Jacqueline Craig told police that a neighbor had choked her 8-year-old son for littering. Rather than take the allegations seriously, Fort Worth Texas Police Officer William Martin interrupted Jacqueline to ask why she didn’t teach her son not to litter; he then suggested the neighbor’s violence was justified because her 8-year-old “broke the law.” When Jacqueline objected to the officer’s suggestion, Martin warned that if she kept yelling at him, he would arrest her for “piss[ing him] off.”
Martin made good on his threat, violently arresting Jacqueline and her 15-year-old daughter, kicking the 15-year-old when she didn’t get into his police vehicle fast enough, and, eventually, arresting Jacqueline’s 18-year-old daughter, Brea Hymond, who was recording the encounter from a distance.
While Martin stood by his patrol vehicle, effortlessly holding Brea by his side with a single hand, Brea repeated that she saw Martin kick her little sister. In response, Martin started questioning Brea: “How old are you? What is your name?” Brea did not immediately answer his questions. So, with Brea’s hands restrained behind her back, Martin jerked her arms up into the air, applying a pain control maneuver taught in police training, and repeated the question, enunciating in a slow, purposeful staccato: “What. Is. Your. Name?” In other words, a police officer purposefully inflicted pain on a restrained, non-resisting person to force her to answer his questions.
The family filed suit against Martin, arguing that his force against each woman was unconstitutionally excessive. Unsurprisingly, Martin invoked the notorious defense of qualified immunity, a judge-made doctrine that insulates government officials from liability for violating constitutional rights unless the right has been “clearly established” in the law. The district court held that this defense was not available to Martin because the law put him on notice that his behavior was beyond the pale, but a panel of the 5th Circuit disagreed. On appeal, three judges ruled that none of Martin’s actions rose to a constitutional violation. And with respect to Brea, it held that the officer’s use of a pain control maneuver “was not objectively unreasonable” because the force was “relatively minimal,” meaning it did not cause her severe physical injury. All the while, the panel acknowledged that the force was not a response to any risk that Brea posed to the officer or others; it was “[o]nly after Hymond refused to provide Martin with her name did Martin employ any force against her.”
“The panel’s decision sets a dangerous precedent that an officer can inflict pain on a restrained, non-resisting person to compel her to answer his questions,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “It is absolutely crucial that the en banc court steps in and corrects this dangerous legal error.”
As part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ has two cert petitions pending in front of the nation’s highest court that also concern governmental immunity. In Byrd v. Lamb, a Department of Homeland Security agent was captured on video threatening to shoot Kevin Byrd in the head and pulling the trigger of a loaded gun, which thankfully jammed. Kevin did nothing wrong. Mohamud v. Weyker involves a teenage girl in Minnesota named Hamdi Mohamud, who was framed by a police officer and arrested for crimes she did not commit. Courts immunized the government workers who violated Kevin’s and Hamdi’s rights. IJ is petitioning the Supreme Court to reverse both rulings.