U.S. 5th Circuit remands excessive force case holding fact question exists as to whether suspect who died during arrest was resisting or not

Darden v. City of Fort Worth, 16-11244, — F3d. –, 2018 WL 525640 (5th Circ. January 24, 2018)

This is a §1983/excessive force/ wrongful death case where the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court order granting the officers’ and City’ summary judgment.

Fort Worth Police Officers W.F. Snow and Javier Romero arrested Darden, a black man who was obese, using a no-knock warrant. Darden’s estate asserts during the arrest the officers assaulted him including taseing him twice, choking him, and punched and kicked him. According to witnesses for the plaintiff, Darden “had no time to react” before “[h]e was thrown on the ground” by the officers. Witnesses testified that Darden never made any threatening gestures and did not resist arrest. The officers assert he did resist arrest requiring the force used.  Darden suffered a heart attack and died during the arrest. The court noted video footage of certain parts of the arrest were contained within the record.  Darden’s estate filed suit against the officers, individually, and the City. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the officers and the City and dismissed all claims. Darden appeals.

Officers Snow and Romero asserted qualified immunity. The investigating physician determined the force used and taser were contributing factors but Darden suffered from a coronary arty disease. The 5th Circuit first determined the trial court errored in finding Darden’s estate did not establish the death was caused solely by the use of force. A tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him. Darden’s preexisting medical conditions increased his risk of death during a struggle, and in that way, they contributed to his death. The evidence suggests that Darden would not have suffered a heart attack and died if the officers had not tased him, forced him onto his stomach, and applied pressure to his back. There is a genuine factual dispute over whether Darden posed an immediate safety threat to the officers.  The warrant was issued because probable cause exists the house occupants were dealing drugs, which is a serious offense, although not a violent one in and of itself. While the video shows Darden apparently surrendering, there are gaps. the circumstances and whether he was resisting cannot be determined from the record. The court was careful to point out that a jury may ultimately conclude that Darden did not comply with the officers’ commands and was actively resisting arrest.  However, for summary judgment purposes, the facts are in dispute and granting the officer’s motions was improper. The court provided a good breakdown of the types of force which are permitted in analyzing the existence of disputed facts. Finally, the court held the trial court did not analyze the claims against the City because it had already (inaccurately) determined the officers were not liable. The trial court needs to re-examine the summary judgment arguments as to the City.  The 5th Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice King, Prado and Southwick. Justice Prado delivered the opinion of the court. The attorney listed for Darden is Matthew J. Kita. The attorneys listed for the City are Laetitia Coleman Brown, Kenneth E. East, and Dee Lee Thomas, Jr.

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