SCOTUS Lets Tony Timpa’s Family Pursue Claims Against Cops Who Killed Him While Supposedly Trying To Help Him
Six years ago, Dallas police officers who ostensibly were trying to help Tony Timpa, a 32-year-old man in the midst of a psychological crisis, ended up killing him instead. Four years later, a federal judge ruled that the cops were protected by qualified immunity, which shields public officials from civil liability unless their alleged misconduct violated “clearly established” law. But last December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned that decision, allowing Timpa’s relatives to proceed with their civil rights lawsuit. Today the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the 5th Circuit’s decision, which means the plaintiffs will finally get a chance to make their case.
On a Monday night in August 2016, Timpa called 911 to report that he was “having a lot of anxiety” about a man he feared would harm him. Timpa mentioned that he had received several psychiatric diagnoses—schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder—but had not taken his medication that day. After police arrived in response to that call and other reports of a man behaving erratically near 1728 West Mockingbird Lane, Timpa yelled, “You’re gonna kill me!” He was right.
Timpa, who had already been handcuffed by a security guard, died while being pinned to the ground face down by several police officers for about 15 minutes, during which time he pleaded with them to stop and cried for help over and over again. The officers, while intermittently showing signs of compassion, joked about Timpa’s predicament and the possibility that they had killed him.
Confronted by these facts, U.S. District Judge David Godbey did not definitively determine whether the officers’ conduct was consistent with the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Even if it wasn’t, he said in his 2020 opinion, the law on that point was not clear enough at the time to allow claims under 42 USC 1983, which authorizes lawsuits against state or local officials who violate people’s constitutional rights.
The circumstances of Timpa’s death were similar to the prolonged prone restraint that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis four years later. That case led to a $27 million civil settlement and criminal convictions for Officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes, and three of his colleagues, who were accused of failing to intervene or provide appropriate medical aid.
In Timpa’s case, by contrast, no charges were filed, and it initially seemed his family’s lawsuit was doomed by qualified immunity, a doctrine that the Supreme Court grafted onto a statute that makes no mention of such an excuse. Godbey’s application of the doctrine vividly illustrated how difficult it can be for plaintiffs to overcome it.
Timpa’s family argued that the Dallas officers’ use of force was clearly unconstitutional under Gutierrez v. City of San Antonio, a 1998 case involving a man who died while restrained face down in the back of a patrol car. In that case, the 5th Circuit allowed an excessive force claim to proceed. In both cases, the lawsuit filed by Timpa’s relatives noted, police knew the detainee was under the influence of cocaine. The 5th Circuit in Gutierrez held that
Article from Reason.com