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The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that Jefferson Parish deputies who placed a mentally-ill suspect in a four-point restraint that led to his death did not employ excessive force.
Based on Fifth Circuit precedent on the issue, the court ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
In 2007, Nayeem Khan, who suffered from a mental illness, began running around inside a Winn-Dixie store at closing time and screaming that people outside were trying to kill him. The store's guard repeatedly asked Khan to stop, and store employees called for the police. In the meantime, the security guard and an off-duty deputy subdued and handcuffed Khan.
Police officers then escorted Khan out of the Winn-Dixie, while Khan forcefully resisted his removal from the store, (e.g. thrashing his legs, attempting to bite, and, according to one officer, reaching for an officer's gun belt).
When Khan continued to resist outside the store, the officers placed him in a four-point restraint. Almost immediately thereafter, the officers noticed Khan stopped breathing. They removed the restraints and administered CPR until an ambulance arrived. Khan began to breathe again by the time he arrived at the hospital, but he died later that night.
Khan's parents sued the police officers, alleging constitutional claims for excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state tort claims. The district court, guided by the Fifth Circuit's excessive force opinions in Hill v. Carroll County and Gutierrez v. City of San Antonio -- both of which addressed the use of a four-point restraint -- concluded that the officers did not use excessive force. The district court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims.
While the Fifth Circuit held in Hill that the four-point restraint is not excessive force per se, it held in Gutierrez that it can sometimes amount to excessive force that is objectively unreasonable.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Khan's treatment was not objectively unreasonable.
Khan's treatment did not violate a clearly established right. Unlike in Hill, Khan was not left face down in the four-point restraint for an extended period of time. Khan remained under constant supervision, which allowed the officers to remove the handcuffs and administer first aid quickly after he stopped breathing.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that, while this was a tragic incident, police officers must often make split-second decisions, and qualified immunity shields them from subsequent second-guessing unless their conduct was objectively unreasonable under clearly established law. As a result, the court held that the defendants are protected by qualified immunity even if their conduct constituted excessive force.