Deputy not liable for false arrest, but potentially liable for excessive force says 5th Circuit.

Ramirez v. Jim Wells County, No. 11-41109 (5th Cir. May 15, 2013)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of qualified and official immunity for false arrest and excessive force claims brought against a Jim Wells County deputy under 42 U.S.C. §1983.  Deputy Martinez (“Tazer Joe” Martinez as referenced in the opinion) attempted to execute a warrant against Ramirez’s sister-in-law while at Ramirez’s landscape business.  When Ramirez approached the deputies to inquire about their business at his shop, Ramirez and Martinez got into an argument.  Deputy Martinez grabbed Ramirez’s arm prompting Ramirez to pull away. Martinez then tased Ramirez in the chest, handcuffed him while on the ground, then tased him again.  Ramirez was not charged after his arrest and he brought claims against Deputy Martinez and the County.  The trial court denied the summary judgment motion asserting qualified and official immunity and Martinez took this interlocutory appeal.

The Fifth Circuit first noted that while a video existed of portions of the incident, the video was not “blatantly contradicted” by either story of the facts to justify dispelling either version under Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007)(holding that when a suspects version of the facts blatantly contradicts the video so that no reasonable juror could believe it, courts need not infer facts in favor of non-movant to summary judgment).

The court then determined that under Texas law, probable cause to make an arrest can be formed by resisting the arrest itself.  Ramirez broke Deputy Martinez’s hold and a reasonable officer could conclude a Texas law was violated.  As a result, Martinez was entitled to qualified immunity for false arrest and official immunity for malicious prosecution.  However, taking the facts most favorable to Ramirez, no reasonable officer could conclude a general inquiry about official business or tasing an individual already on the ground and in handcuffs is a reasonable use of force. The trial court properly denied qualified immunity as to the excessive force claims and official immunity as to the assault claims.  The case was affirmed in part and reversed in part.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.