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Officers not protected by qualified immunity for pretrial inmate’s death from tasing

Ricky Hinkle died in a Birmingham City jail after being shocked twice with a taser and his son Hunter filed federal civil rights lawsuit against Deputy Dukuzumuremyi under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for a violation of Hinkle’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force. Hunter also claimed that Sheriff Hale and Captain Eddings were liable as supervisors for the deliberate indifference for policy or custom implemented by the officers. The officers moved to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity and the district court denied their motions, and they took this appeal to the Eleventh Circuit. Dukuzumuremyi’s qualified immunity claim was rejected but the court found no supervisory liability by the Sheriff and the Captain.

This is how the facts unfolded. Hinkle was arrested while “visibly intoxicated” and taken to jail where he began suffering from alcohol-withdrawal symptoms and exhibited delusional behavior. When officers found him in the corner of his cell wearing only underpants and shoes telling them he wanted to die, they decided to move him to a padded cell. As they walked him toward the cell and asked him to remove his shoes, he began running down the hallway and grabbed a shower curtain. As the officers attempted to pull Hinkle into the new cell Dukuzumuremyi fired his taser hitting Hinkle on the left side of his chest. As a result of the shock Hinkle fell to the floor and urinated on himself. Dukuzumuremyi ordered Hinkle to roll over to be handcuffed by Hinkle remained unresponsive. Dukuzumuremyi tased him again on the front left side of his neck eight second after the first shock. During that time Hinkle remained motionless on the ground. Shortly after the second shock Hinkle went into cardiac arrest and was later pronounce dead in the hospital.

The court of appeals determined that it had to decide whether the force used against Hinkle was objectively reasonable or in other words whether it was excessive in relation to its purpose. There was no dispute that the first shock was a permissible use of force given Hinkle’s resistance and the officers’ need to preserve internal order and discipline. The issue was the second shock. Dukuzumuremyi claimed the second shock was not excessive force in light of Hinkle’s failure to turn over to be handcuffed after being ordered and being given the opportunity to do so, together with the split-second decisions that a jail officer has to make. In other words, his argument was that Hinkle was not fully compliant.

The court of appeals disagreed and found that it was totally unreasonable to expect a man who is lying on the floor immobilized and incontinent following a taser shock should “pep up, roll over, and submit to handcuffing within eight seconds. The court found the only reasonable inference was that Hinkle not to roll over while he lay motionless on the floor after the five second taser shock and unable to hold his urine was that he could not do so. The court concluded that that the second taser shock violated Hinkle’s clearly established Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force.  As for the supervisory liability the court found no sufficient basis under the facts pleaded to sustain a supervisory claim.