The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Aldaba v. Pickens on Wednesday, February 4, 2015.
Johnny Leija went to a hospital in Oklahoma and was diagnosed with dehydration and severe pneumonia in both lungs, causing hypoxia (low oxygen levels, known to cause altered mental status). He was pleasant when he was admitted at 11 a.m., but by 6 p.m. his behavior had changed—he was complaining of extreme thirst and a nurse discovered he had disconnected his oxygen and cut his IV, and he was bleeding from the arms. The nurse reconnected the IV and the oxygen, but Leija seemed confused and anxious. Leija became increasingly aggressive and disoriented, the doctor was increasingly concerned for his health due to the behavioral and mental status changes, and eventually law enforcement was called “for help with a disturbed patient.”
Leija, who had willingly come to the hospital, exited his hospital room and was walking toward the exit when law enforcement arrived. The doctor expressed concern that Leija could die if he left the hospital, given the severity of his symptoms. The officers tried to persuade Leija to return to his room, but he was agitated and insisted the nurses were trying to kill him. The officers repeatedly tried to get Leija to his knees and warned him they would use a taser. Leija removed his IVs and shook his arms, stating “this is my blood.” A deputy fired the taser, striking Leija in the torso, but it appeared ineffectual and a struggle ensued. The officers shoved Leija face-first against the wall and tased him again, this time making direct contact with Leija’s skin, but again the taser appeared ineffectual. A deputy shoved his leg into the back of Leija’s knee, bringing all three officers and Leija down. The officers handcuffed Leija while the doctor administered calming medications, but at that point Leija became limp and the doctors began CPR. Leija died that evening. The medical examiner testified that the cause of death was pneumonia, but the taser shots “certainly could have increased Leija’s need for oxygen,” and the treating physician testified that the position Leija was forced into by the officers made it difficult for him to breathe.
Erma Aldaba, Leija’s mother and next of kin, brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the officers. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers, deciding that Leija was lawfully seized, since probable cause existed for taking him into protective custody due to his altered mental status. However, the district court denied qualified immunity on the excessive force claim, holding that several material disputes existed about the reasonableness of the force used against Mr. Leija. The officers filed an interlocutory appeal.
The Tenth Circuit first analyzed the constitutional violation regarding the officers’ use of excessive force against Leija. The Tenth Circuit first enumerated the Graham factors for determining whether force was excessive, then added factors relating to the reasonableness of using force against a person who is to be taken into protective custody for mental health reasons. The Tenth Circuit found that where, as here, the person has committed no crime and poses a threat only to himself, it is especially egregious to use force to take the person into protective custody. The Tenth Circuit also admonished against the use of force or positional restraints when a person has special characteristics making him especially susceptible to harm, such as known medical conditions. Weighing the factors, the Tenth Circuit found the first factor weighed for the use of some force in restraining Mr. Leija, since he was clearly mentally disturbed and could die if he left the hospital. However, the rest of the factors weighed against the use of force, and particularly against the use of a taser.
Mr. Leija’s altered mental status and compromised physical condition weigh against the use of any force in restraint. Perhaps more importantly, weighing against the use of force was the fact that Mr. Leija committed no crime and voluntarily arrived at the hospital for medical treatment. Finally, the Tenth Circuit found disputed material facts regarding the last Graham factor—whether the defendant resisted seizure. Here, testimony varied on whether Mr. Leija complied with the officers’ orders to get down on his knees. Surveillance video showed no struggle from Leija, who simply continued walking when the officers commanded him to kneel. The deputy made the initial showing of force by tasing Mr. Leija. The officers were not justified in using the level of force shown on the surveillance video. The Tenth Circuit found the officers were not entitled to summary judgment on the excessive force claim, and that the law was clearly established at the time of the violation.
The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment to the officers.