LINDA SURRATT, Individually and as heir and legal representative of the Estate of Lesa Ann Surratt, deceased, Plaintiff - Appellant
BRIAN MCCLARIN; CITY OF SHERMAN; TOM CAVER; TREVOR STEVENS, Defendants-Appellees
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Texas
DAVIS, CLEMENT, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.
BROWN CLEMENT, Circuit Judge.
qualified immunity case, the question on appeal is whether-in
light of clearly established law at the time of the
incident-officers acted objectively unreasonably when they
applied force to the jaw and throat of a suspect who was
believed to be hiding evidence in her mouth. Because we
conclude that they did not, we AFFIRM.
August 20, 2013, police officer Tom Caver of the Sherman
Police Department effected a traffic stop, pulling over Lesa
Ann Surratt ("Surratt") for signaling one direction
but then turning the other. The stop was pretextual. Earlier
that day, Caver had been informed that Surratt was in
possession of narcotics.
officer Trevor Stevens arrived as backup, the officers
arrested Surratt for the traffic violation. They also
arrested Surratt's only passenger, Monica Garza, on some
outstanding traffic warrants. The officers handcuffed both
women and placed them in the backseat of Caver's patrol
car, securing them with seatbelts. The patrol car was
equipped with an in-car video surveillance system which
recorded most of the remaining events at issue.
officers returned to Surratt's vehicle to retrieve the
women's personal effects, briefly leaving the women alone
and unsupervised in the backseat of the patrol car. During
this time, Surratt managed to free her right hand from her
handcuffs, pull a small baggy of narcotics from underneath
her skirt, and place it in her mouth. When Stevens returned
to the patrol car a few moments later, he opened the back
door nearest to Surratt and heard what sounded like an object
hitting the floor. He asked, "What did you do? What did
you drop?" When the women stated that they had not
dropped anything, Stevens ordered Caver-who had just returned
to the vehicle himself and opened Garza's side door-to
"[g]et 'em out, one by one. They were trying to hide
then noticed Surratt's skirt and observed,
"She's got her britches pulled up, it's in her,
it's in her pants." Caver reached across Garza and
grabbed Surratt's right arm which was behind her back. He
then shined his flashlight in Surratt's face and ordered
her to "open [her] mouth up." Less than four
seconds later, Stevens pressed his forearm against
Surratt's left jawline and neck while Caver pressed his
thumb into the back of her right jawline to try and force her
to open her mouth.
fought back, grabbing at Caver's arms as he continued to
apply what the police department called "soft hands
techniques." She also kept ignoring the officers'
instructions to open her mouth. After several seconds of
struggle, Caver grabbed Surratt's right hand and
attempted to pull her over Garza and out the door. Because
Surratt's seatbelt was still buckled, this took nearly a
minute. By the time she was completely out of the patrol car,
Surratt was unresponsive and having a seizure.
officers noted that Surratt was not breathing and radioed for
an ambulance. By this time, several other officers had
arrived on the scene as backup. The officers assumed that
Surratt was choking. Detective Brian McClaran administered the
Heimlich Maneuver in an effort to dislodge the obstruction in
her throat, but was unsuccessful. Eventually, the fire
department arrived and used forceps to remove the plastic
baggie from Surratt's throat. She was transported to the
hospital and placed on life support but died thirteen days
later as a "result of complications of asphyxia due to
airway obstruction by plastic bag."
sister, Linda Surratt ("Linda"), then filed the
instant lawsuit. She asserted claims against Caver, Stevens,
McClaran, and the City of Sherman for excessive force,
unreasonable search and seizure, violation of due process,
and conspiracy, as well as Texas state-law claims for
wrongful death, assault and battery, and breach of fiduciary
duty. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The
district court granted the motion, partly because it
concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified
immunity. While the district court concluded that the
officers had violated Surratt's Fourth Amendment
right to be free from excessive force, it held that the
officers' actions were not objectively unreasonable in
light of clearly established law at the time of the incident.
Linda timely appealed.
review a grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing
all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party and drawing all reasonable inferences in that
party's favor." Kariuki v. Tarango, 709
F.3d 495, 501 (5th Cir. 2013). Summary judgment is
appropriate where "the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact ...