Deputies entitled to qualified immunity, even though one testified his actions may be unconstitutional

Pratt v. Harris County 15-20080 (5th Circuit- May 3rd 2016)

This is a §1983 excessive force case where the trial court granted the officer’s qualified immunity motions. The 5th Circuit affirmed.

Pratt was involved in a minor traffic accident.  Upon arriving at the scene, deputies observed Pratt “running in circles . . . imitating a boxer.” When deputies attempted to interact with him he was uncooperative and started to walk away. After several warnings the deputies deployed their Tasers. Pratt continued to resist but was eventually handcuffed and restrained. EMS arrived, but Pratt did not have a pulse. The autopsy report noted the examiner could not “definitively separate[]” the effect of Pratt’s ingestion of cocaine and ethanol, from the other possible contributing factors—which, at least, included Pratt’s car accident, various altercations, tasing, and hog-tying—that culminated in his asphyxiation. At the time of Pratt’s arrest, the County had a policy which prohibited officers from using hog-tie restraints. The results of the County’s internal investigation were presented to a grand jury, and the deputies were no-billed.  Pratt’s mother sued the individual deputies and the County. Both filed dispositive motions which were granted.

The 5th Circuit first analyzed the deputies qualified immunity claims. The court listed various facts including Pratt’s continued resistance and the escalation of force techniques used before the deputies were finally able to subdue him. The record shows that both officers responded “with ‘measured and ascending’ actions that corresponded to [Pratt’s] escalating verbal and physical resistance.”  Additionally, the court held “[a]lthough hog-tying is a controversial restraint, we have never held that an officer’s use of a hog-tie restraint is, per se, an unconstitutional use of excessive force.” And even though one deputy testified his belief was the practice of hog-tying may be unconstitutional, “the constitutionality of an officer’s actions, is neither guided nor governed by an officer’s subjective beliefs about the constitutionality of his actions or by his adherence to the policies of the department under which he operates.” The question for the court was whether the actions of the deputies was excessive in the specific circumstances. Ultimately the court held it was not.

The concurring opinion did not analyze the situation as deeply and simply stated the actions of this nature should not be second guessed if it is a close call. The dissent asserts that the hog-tying technique and the policy prohibiting it should be sufficient to overcome qualified immunity. Additionally, while he failed to comply with requests, the dissent asserted Pratt posed no immediate danger to the officers which would justify the tasing or hog-tying technique.

To read the opinion click here. The panel consists of Justices Jolly, Haynes and Costa. Judge Jolly issued the opinion, Judge Costa concurred and Judge Haynes concurred and dissented on the judgement. The attorney for the mother of Pratt is Susan Hutchinson. Attorney for the the County is Mary E. Baker.