Qualified Immunity for Police Under Scrutiny As Court Considers Pittsburg Case

Body camera footage shows the moments when Pittsburg police officers realize Humberto Martinez stopped breathing on July 26, 2016, and began CPR. Martinez later died. (Pittsburg Police Department)

Update, 11:50 p.m. Thursday, June 18: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling Thursday affirming a lower court’s denial of qualified immunity for the Pittsburg police officers who killed Humberto “Beto” Martinez in 2016, meaning a wrongful death lawsuit can proceed.

“This important decision finally clears the way for Beto Martinez’s children to bring the officers who killed their father to trial, and ultimately to justice,” said Michael Haddad, the plaintiffs' attorney.

Original post, 12:55 p.m. Thursday, June 11: A federal appeals court in San Francisco is considering whether six Pittsburg police officers can be held liable for killing a man during a violent arrest in 2016. At the center of the officers’ appeal is a legal doctrine called qualified immunity that broadly shields public officials — and police — from liability.

As police accountability comes under increased scrutiny in the wake of killings and widespread protests, calls have grown to remove this legal protection for officers. On Monday, congressional Democrats introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which would eliminate officers’ access to qualified immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court may also revisit the issue.

The legal standard outlined by the courts says officers can only be directly held responsible for killing or injuring someone if they both clearly violated that person’s constitutional rights and they knew, or should have known, they were violating those rights.

“Qualified immunity is supposed to provide officers with breathing room when they're involved in very difficult situations,” the officers’ attorney Noah Blechman told justices for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals during oral arguments in San Francisco on Wednesday. “Which is what the officers were [in] here; they had split seconds to determine what type of force option to use.”

The difficult situation Blechman referenced began with a traffic stop on July 26, 2016.

Pittsburg police officers were patrolling an area for drug activity when they spotted Humberto “Beto” Martinez, 36, in a car with expired tags. The officers attempted to pull him over.

Martinez ran from police into a nearby home. They chased him inside and tackled him to the kitchen floor. First two officers and then, ultimately, six officers struggled to handcuff the 6’2” 285-pound man. They tased him, stomped on him, kneed him and punched him as one of the officers — Ernesto Mejia — wrapped his arm around Martinez’s neck and squeezed. Martinez went limp.

“Hey, he’s going purple,” an officer called out moments later.

Martinez wasn’t breathing. His heart had stopped.

VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: Body-camera footage from multiple officers show Mejia struggling to subdue Martinez. This video was edited for brevity and language. Pittsburg police blurred Martinez's face before releasing footage.

The autopsy showed the officers broke 16 of Martinez’s ribs, bruised his head and liver and broke the cartilage in his throat. Toxicology tests showed Martinez had methamphetamine and alcohol in his system.

Martinez’s family is suing the city of Pittsburg, the police chief and the six officers involved in the incident.

The officers’ attorney argued Wednesday that because each of them were involved in the incident to differing degrees, and it was a chaotic unfolding situation, they should not be all held liable for Martinez’s death.

“The qualified immunity analysis is an officer-by-officer, individualized analysis, not a group analysis,” Blechman said. “The [lower] court really did not do that.”

Attorney Michael Haddad, who represents Martinez’s family, responded that body camera footage showed that all of the officers did use force, even if it was just to hold Martinez down.

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In determining whether excessive force was used, Haddad argued that you have to look at the underlying crime, which in this case he said was a fix-it ticket or. at worst, a misdemeanor for fleeing from police. Even in the midst of the struggle, Martinez did not appear to strike or assault any of the officers.

The 9th Circuit is expected to issue a ruling on the officers’ appeal in the coming months.

In an interview, Haddad said the legal protections for police have been too broadly applied, allowing officers to argue that they just made a mistake and that they didn’t know they were violating someone’s rights.

In a 2018 ruling seen as broadly expanding qualified immunity for police officers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an officer who shot a woman through a chain-link fence had not violated a "clearly established" right, upholding the dismissal of a lawsuit against Tucson police officer Andrew Kisela.

Amy Hughes was acting erratically and holding a knife, standing next to another woman. Kisela was separated from them both. The officer fired four shots through the fence, injuring Hughes.

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The Supreme Court's ruling has resulted in the dismissal of more wrongful death lawsuits before they ever get to trial. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court was treating the doctrine of "qualified immunity as an absolute shield."

“It's time to undo it and return justice to courts and juries for police, just like it exists for everybody else,” Haddad said.

If the case law establishing "qualified immunity" were changed, more lawsuits over killings by police officers would be allowed to go to trial.

“I think about what happened to Eric Garner and George Floyd and many others,” Haddad said to the 9th Circuit justices in closing. “And for each of them, as police officers beat and crushed the breath from them, their last words were, ‘I can't breathe.’ Now some of those very officers are here, literally asking for you to give them some breathing room.”