Wiley v. City of Columbus, 2022 WL 1799173 (6th Cir. 2022)
Jaron Thomas called 911 and requested an ambulance because he was “doing cocaine” and thought he might be overdosing. Thomas told the dispatcher his “heart was pounding” and that he was “hearing these voices” that made him feel “really paranoid.” Officer Pinkerman arrived at the residence within five minutes and paramedics followed a minute after. The paramedics staged a short distance away, awaiting a signal from police that it was safe for them to approach.
When Officer Pinkerman knocked on the front door, he heard a man screaming and someone falling down the stairs. Just then, the front door flew open and Thomas ran screaming past the officer, falling onto the front lawn. Officer Pinkerman fell on top of Thomas, then ordered him to stay down and put his hands behind his back. Thomas got up and ran toward the street. Officer Pinkerman again ordered Thomas to stop and show his hands. Thomas didn’t stop but fell again and began “violently rolling around and sporadically contorting his body as if he was having a seizure.” Officer Pinkerman grabbed and handcuffed Thomas’s left wrist, but was unable to get control of his right wrist.
Officer Stephens arrived to assist. The two officers could not control Thomas as he struggled, kicked and squirmed around. Thomas held his right wrist under his body. Officer Alexander arrived. He grabbed Thomas’s feet, crossed his ankles and folded his legs toward his buttocks. Officer Pinkerman delivered a knee strike to Thomas’s abdomen. Once Thomas was handcuffed, the officers stood him up to walk him to a police car. Thomas continued to contort his arms, shoulders and torso. The officers signaled the paramedics to approach, assess Thomas and provide medical assistance.
Thomas continued to try to escape from the officers’ grasp. He dropped into dead weight, so the officers placed him on the ground again. Thomas immediately began kicking and trying to get away. Officer Alexander went to his patrol car to retrieve a hobble. Another officer once again crossed Thomas’s legs, bent them at the knee and held them against his buttocks. A third officer held Thomas’s handcuffs and pressed his left knee to Thomas’s lower back/hip area to control his hips and keep him on the ground. They intended to hobble Thomas, roll him on his side and hold him there until the paramedics arrived.
Approximately 90 seconds after Officer Alexander went to get a hobble, Thomas stopped resisting and officers noticed a change in his breathing. They immediately rolled Thomas onto his side. That’s when the paramedics approached. They strapped Thomas to a gurney. Concluding he was overdosing from opiates, the paramedics administered a dose of Narcan (naloxone). Shortly after, the paramedics told the officers Thomas was in stable, non-life-threatening condition.
Thomas continued to convulse at the hospital. He never regained consciousness and died nine days later. A toxicology screen revealed cocaine, marijuana and opiates in Thomas’s blood. The coroner determined the cause of death was “anoxic encephalopathy” due to cardiac arrest as a consequence of “cocaine induced delirium.”
Though it was not the court’s role to specifically approve of the technique, one can fairly take away that the court found nothing wrong with its use, particularly where Thomas was struggling to escape and considering that officers did not apply compressional force to his back.
On behalf of Thomas’ estate, Chana Wiley sued the officers, alleging Thomas’ death was cardiac arrest caused by “forcible restraint that precluded adequate breathing.” She did not claim the initial force used to handcuff and restrain Thomas was unreasonable. However, she alleged excessive force in placing Thomas on the ground a second time and restraining him. Wiley specifically claimed that “positional asphyxia” contributed to Thomas’ death and alleged the officer’s knee was on Thomas’ upper back, not near his hip.
The trial court ruled there was no evidence that any officer “applied any pressure to Thomas’ mid or upper back, chest, or torso while he was lying on the ground.” and granted summary judgment in favor of the officers; Wiley appealed. Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the party requesting summary judgment is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In this case, Wiley argued the dispute over where the officer’s knee was placed should have prevented a grant of summary judgment to the officers. She claimed a bruise on Thomas’ upper back was evidence a knee was placed there.
The court of appeals upheld the grant of summary judgment to the officers. One of the paramedics testified he saw an officer’s knee on Thomas’ back—though he did not recall the exact position on the back. Wiley asserted this testimony created a reasonable inference that an officer placed a knee on Thomas’ upper back and caused his death. The court discounted this claim. As for the bruise, the court observed, Thomas apparently fell down the stairs before bursting through the front door, fell to the ground multiple times and received a knee strike. A jury could not reasonably infer from the bruise that an officer knelt on his upper back.
Wiley also claimed the technique of crossing Thomas’ ankles, bending his legs at the knees and pressing his feet into his buttocks when he was kicking, contributed to his death. The appellate court held that Thomas presented a safety risk to officers, paramedics and himself. The court also concluded the officers did not apply compression to Thomas’ chest.
The court held Wiley had failed to show it was clearly established that the officers were barred from using the ankle-crossing restraint tactic. The officers described this technique as the “maximum resistor” maneuver. It is commonly taught as a part of four- or five-point restraint techniques. Though it was not the court’s role to specifically approve of the technique, one can fairly take away that the court found nothing wrong with its use, particularly where Thomas was struggling to escape and considering that officers did not apply compressional force to his back.