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Cops Tackling, Suffocating Naked LSD-Influenced Man Is Excessive

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By William Peacock, Esq. on April 12, 2013 3:51 PM

What would you do if a naked, mentally-unstable man ran towards you, asked to be arrested, and then skipped away like a looney? Hiding in your car, locking the door, and calling the police is pretty good idea. For the police, however, their options are far more limited.

Whatever their options may have been for dealing with the unarmed LSD-influenced naked man, their chosen route, which included tackling, choke-holds, "hammer punches," and multiple men holding him down until he died of asphyxiation was probably not the correct route to take.

The police department, recognizing the possibility of these types of accidental asphyxiation deaths, had two policies in place at the time: an appropriate amount of force policy and a "Positional Asphyxia Policy," which was implemented in April 2003, four years before William Martin's death. The policy highlighted the increased danger of asphyxiation when a suspect is mentally unstable and agitated.

Though the Cuyahoga County Coroner blamed "excited delirium due to intoxication by [LSD] and cardiopulmonary arrest" for the death, another pathologist from the office investigated further and found that the officers' actions could have been the cause. A pathologist hired by the state agreed with the reassessment and stated that "excited delirium" is a controversial, unproven, and unrecognized theory from which "no death has ever resulted."

The district court denied qualified immunity and summary judgment to the officers.

To defeat qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show that there was a violation of a constitutional right, and that right was "clearly established" when the event occurred such that the officer would have notice.

Constitutional Violation

Did the officers' excessive force violate Martin's Fourth Amendment rights? The Graham test asks whether the officers' actions were "objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting [him], without regard to [his] underlying intent or motivation."

Though some force may have been reasonable (Martin was obviously drugged, naked, and had been entering others' apartments and asking for help), the amount of force was certainly excessive.

The officers could plainly see that he was unarmed (again, naked). Tackling him, then using a chokehold, hammer punches, and holding him down with three large officers was too far. Furthermore, any resistance he offered up was either harmless (jogging away from officers) or in self-defense (when he was suffocating).

Under the Graham test, a constitutional violation seems pretty clear here.

Clearly Established?

In 2004, the Sixth Circuit held, in Champion, that "applying pressure to the back of a prone suspect who no longer resists arrest and poses no flight risk is an objectively unreasonable use of force." In 1990, the Fifth Circuit's Simpson decision held that "creating asphyxiating conditions by applying 'substantial or significant pressure' to restrain a suspect who presents a minimal safety risk amounts to excessive force."

Furthermore, the department's policy clearly established the dangers of their actions as well.

When considered with the precedent, it was clear that the force and tactics employed were excessive.

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