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Darden v. City of Fort Worth, Texas

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

January 24, 2018

ERIC C. DARDEN, as Administrator of the Estate of Jermaine Darden and on behalf of the statutory beneficiaries of the Estate of Jermaine Darden (which are Donneika Goodacre-Darden, surviving mother of Jermaine Darden, Charles H. Darden, surviving father of Jermaine Darden), Plaintiff-Appellant,
CITY OF FORT WORTH, TEXAS; W. F. SNOW; J. ROMERO, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before KING, PRADO, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.



         Treating Defendants-Appellees' petition for rehearing en banc as a petition for panel rehearing, the petition for panel rehearing is DENIED. The petition for rehearing en banc is also DENIED. The prior opinion, Darden v. City of Fort Worth, Tex., 866 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2017), is withdrawn, and the following opinion is substituted:

         Fort Worth Police Officers W.F. Snow and Javier Romero arrested Jermaine Darden, a black man who was obese, while executing a no-knock warrant at a private residence. In arresting Darden, the officers allegedly threw him to the ground, tased him twice, choked him, punched and kicked him in the face, pushed him into a face-down position, pressed his face into the ground, and pulled his hands behind his back to handcuff him. Darden suffered a heart attack and died during the arrest. The administrator of Darden's estate subsequently brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case against Officers Snow and Romero and the City of Fort Worth (the "City"). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the officers and the City and dismissed all claims. We REVERSE in part, VACATE in part, and REMAND.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2013, the Fort Worth Police Department investigated claims that cocaine was being sold from a private residence. A magistrate judge issued a warrant that allowed the officers to enter the residence without first knocking and announcing themselves. On May 16, 2013, a large team of heavily armed police officers executed the warrant. Officer Snow was assigned to the entry team, which was tasked with breaking down the front door, entering the residence, and securing the premises. Officer Romero drove the van that transported the team to the residence. He was also assigned to stand guard near the front door while other officers entered the residence and arrested the people inside. Two other members of the team wore cameras on their helmets, which captured on video some but not all of the events that transpired as the warrant was executed.

         When the police first arrived at the house, the entry team broke down the front door with a battering ram, yelled that they were police, and ordered everyone to get down. A large man, later identified as Darden, was kneeling on the seat of a couch near the door when the officers first entered, and he immediately raised his hands in the air. Darden weighed approximately 340 pounds. Several other people were sitting and standing in a nearby dining room. As Officer Snow entered the residence, he reached out and ripped the shirt off Darden's back, apparently in an attempt to get Darden from the couch to the ground. The videos do not show what happened during the twenty-five seconds that followed, and there is conflicting testimony about what transpired.[1] According to witnesses for the plaintiff, Darden "had no time to react" before "[h]e was thrown on the ground" by the officers. Witnesses also testified that Darden never made any threatening gestures and did not resist arrest.

         After approximately twenty-five seconds, it became apparent that some sort of incident was occurring in the front room. One of the videos shows Darden lying on the ground face up. An officer in the front room yelled, "Roll over on your face, " at which point, Darden appeared to follow directions and rolled over onto his stomach. The video then pans away from the scene and does not turn back for approximately fifteen seconds. The second video shows that Officer Romero then ran into the house to assist. However, in that video, much of the interaction between Darden and the officers is totally obscured by the couch. Although not captured by the video, eyewitnesses testified that Officer Romero proceeded to choke Darden and to repeatedly punch and kick Darden in the face.[2]

         At one point, Darden's body appeared to come up off the ground for a moment, but it is not clear from the video footage whether he came up of his own volition or was pulled up by police. The officers then backed away, and Officer Snow used a Taser on Darden. Shortly thereafter, Darden rolled over onto his stomach and appeared to push himself up on his hands. He was immediately pushed back down into the ground by police. Throughout these events, other people in the house repeatedly yelled, "He's got asthma, " and "He can't breathe." Eyewitnesses also testified that Darden himself told the officers he could not breathe.[3]

         A few seconds later, the videos briefly show Darden on his knees, with his hands in the air, before Officer Snow tased him a second time.[4] Darden fell to the ground and rolled onto his back, where he lay face up for a few seconds. Officer Romero then pushed Darden over onto his stomach and pressed his face into the ground. As Officer Romero tried to pull Darden's left arm behind his back, Darden seemed to pull his arm away. The officers then pushed Darden back into the ground, and one officer appeared to put him in a choke hold.

         At that point, other people in the residence were still yelling that Darden could not breathe. Nevertheless, several officers continued to push Darden's body into the ground face down, pressed his face and neck into the floor, and pulled his arms behind his back so that Officer Romero could handcuff him. As Officer Romero finished securing the handcuffs, Darden's body went limp. The officers then pulled Darden's debilitated body up into a sitting position and left him there. Darden appeared to be unconscious, and his head hung down on his chest. It was subsequently determined that Darden had suffered a heart attack and died.

         The administrator of Darden's estate brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that Officers Snow and Romero used excessive force in arresting Darden and that the City was liable for failing to adequately train the officers. All of the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, and the district court granted their motions and dismissed the case. The district court determined that the officers had not violated clearly established law and were thus entitled to qualified immunity. In addition, the district court stated that the plaintiff had failed to show that Darden's death resulted only from the officers' use of force. Because it held that the officers had not violated Darden's constitutional rights, the district court likewise dismissed the municipal liability claims. This appeal followed.


         "We review a summary judgment de novo, 'using the same standard as that employed by the district court under Rule 56.'" Newman v. Guedry, 703 F.3d 757, 761 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Kerstetter v. Pac. Sci. Co., 210 F.3d 431, 435 (5th Cir. 2000)). Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         A. Officers Snow and Romero

         The Supreme Court has "mandated a two-step sequence for resolving government officials' qualified immunity claims." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009). We must determine (1) "whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged . . . make out a violation of a constitutional right" and (2) "whether the right at issue was 'clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct." Id. "A right may be clearly established without 'a case directly on point, ' but 'existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.'" Hanks v. Rogers, 853 F.3d 738, 746-47 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 551 (2017)). In the excessive force context, a constitutional violation is clearly established if no reasonable officer could believe the act was lawful. See Manis v. Lawson, 585 F.3d 839, 846 (5th Cir. 2009). Courts are "permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the ...

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