For all the cracks we hear about how the city of Escondido loses a lot of court cases, here’s one where the city won a case, or part of it anyway—and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was overruled by U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. States Supreme Court, in a Per Curiam (meaning unanimous) ruling released on January 7, 2019, in the case of City of Escondido, California, et al. v. Marty Emmons, reversed a qualified immunity ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit because that court failed to describe with specificity, the ”clearly established right” whose alleged violation was at the heart of this case.
The Supreme Court wrote: “The question in this qualified immunity case is whether two police officers violated clearly established law when they forcibly apprehended a man at the scene of a reported domestic violence incident.”
The Court described the situation: “In April 2013, Escondido police received a 911 call from Maggie Emmons about a domestic violence incident at her apartment. Emmons lived at the apartment with her husband, her two children, and a roommate, Ametria Douglas. Officer Jake Houchin responded to the scene and eventually helped take a domestic violence report from Emmons about injuries caused by her husband. The officers arrested her husband. He was later released.”
A few weeks later, on May 27, 2013 EPD received a 911 call about another possible domestic disturbance at Emmons’ apartment. It came from Ametria Douglas’ mother, Trina Douglas, who was not at the apartment, but on the phone with her daughter Ametria, who was at the apartment. Trina heard her daughter Ametria and Maggie Emmons yelling at each other and heard her daughter screaming for help. The call disconnected, and Trina Douglas called 911.
Officer Houchin again responded, along with Officer Robert Craig. The dispatcher warned that two children could be in the residence and that calls to the apartment had gone unanswered
The officers wore body-cameras, which recorded their actions. They knocked on the apartment door. No one answered. But a side window was open, and the officers spoke with Emmons through that window, trying to convince her to open the door so they could conduct a welfare check. A man in the apartment also told Emmons to back away from the window, but the officers could not identify him. Then Sergeant Kevin Toth, Officer Joseph Leffingwell, and Officer Huy Quach arrived as backup.
A few minutes later, a man opened the apartment door and came outside. Officer Craig was standing alone just outside the door. He told the man not to close the door, but the man closed it and tried to brush past Craig who took him quickly to the ground, and handcuffed him.
The video shows that Officer Craig did not hit the man or display a weapon. Also, that the man was not in any visible or audible pain as a result of the takedown or while on the ground. Eventually, officers helped him up and arrested him for misdemeanor resisting and delaying a police officer.
The man turned out to be Maggie Emmons’ father, Marty Emmons, who later sued Officer Craig and Sergeant Toth, among others. Emmons raised several claims, including, excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He sought money damages for which Officer Craig and Sergeant Toth would be personally liable.
According to City Attorney Michael R. McGuinness, “Our position is our officers had a 911 call and the emergency exception doctrine to the 4th amendment, to do a cursory protective sweep. Under that exception, they are not allowed to look for evidence, all they were doing was making sure everyone was OK. Our position was she consented to the entry. Even if they couldn’t have demanded entry, she allowed it. And that’s what the District Court found.”
The District Court held that the officers had probable cause to arrest Marty Emmons for the misdemeanor offense.
The Ninth Circuit did not disturb that finding, and the only claim left for the Supreme Court to decide was whether the officers used excessive force in the arrest.
The District Court rejected the claim of excessive force. It wrote that “video shows that the officers acted professionally and respectfully in their encounter.” Because only Officer Craig used any force at all, the District Court granted summary judgment to Sergeant Toth on the excessive force claim.
Applying previous precedents on qualified immunity, the District Court also granted summary judgment to Officer Craig. It ruled that the law did not clearly establish that he could not take down an arrestee in these circumstances.
The 9th Circuit reversed the District Court and ordered both Officers Craig and Sgt. Toth tried for excessive force.
The Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit, writing: “As we have explained many times: ‘Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” It added,
“This Court has repeatedly told courts . . . not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality. That is particularly important in excessive force cases, as we have explained:
‘Specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where the Court has recognized that it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.’ ”
The court added, “An officer cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.”
Qualified immunity is immunity from lawsuit. It can be overruled in the case of 4th Amendment cases where an officer violates reasonableness in search and seizure. “What is reasonable requires an exacting review of what the officer was confronted with at the time and what a reasonable officer would do in that instance,” McGuinness told The Times-Advocate.
It’s not common for the City of Escondido to have one of its cases decided by the Supreme Court and McGuinness conceded it was kind of exciting, even though no one from the city actually appeared before the court. “It was all decided by the briefs,” he said.
“It’s a big case to the Emmons, but it’s not Apple v. IBM or a big monster case,” he said. “It’s a sleeper.” Nevertheless, McGuinness felt that it important because it further defined qualified immunity.