The family of a Dallas man who died in police custody five years ago can proceed with their lawsuit against four officers, a federal appeals court ruled in an opinion filed Friday that overturned a lower court's ruling.
Qualified immunity shields conduct that "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known," Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote for the three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in sending the case back to U.S. District Judge David Godbey in Dallas.
Godbey had thrown out the lawsuit brought by the family of Tony Timpa, ruling that the officers were protected from liability in Timpa's 2016 death by the qualified immunity doctrine. The doctrine shields officers from liability for the legal performance of their duties.
The family accused Officer Dustin Dillard of using excessive force on Timpa by pressing his knee into Timpa's upper back for about 14 minutes. They also accused Sgt. Kevin Mansell, Senior Cpl. Raymond Dominquez and Officers Danny Vasquez and Domingo Rivera of failing to intervene to save Timpa, who was 32 when he died.
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According to court documents, Timpa called 911 on Aug. 10, 2016, from a Dallas parking lot and said he was afraid and needed help, telling a dispatcher he suffered from schizophrenia and depression and was off his medication. Officers arrived to find him walking in traffic.
In police body camera videos, officers could be seen forcefully pinning Timpa to the ground for more than 14 minutes and cracking jokes even as the screaming, handcuffed man went still and fell silent. Shaking his limp body, the officers can be heard laughing and comparing Timpa to a child who doesn't want to wake up for school. Not long after, a paramedic informed them he was dead.
Medical examiners ruled Timpa's death a homicide and said it was caused by cardiac arrest brought on by cocaine and the stress of physical restraint.
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In 2017, a grand jury indicted Mansell, Vasquez and Dillard for misdemeanor deadly conduct in Timpa's death, finding they had acted recklessly. Prosecutors dismissed the charges in March 2019 and the officers returned to active duty the next month.
Godbey threw out the family's lawsuit, which seeks almost $30 million in actual and exemplary damages.
But the three judges on the appeals court panel disagreed with Godbey's rationale and restored the lawsuit.
"Dillard's continued use of force was not justified by a criminal investigatory function," Clement wrote. "The officers concede that Timpa's criminal liability was `minor' -- no more than a traffic violation." In fact, "the officers did not intend to charge him with any crimes."
While overturning the summary judgment for Dillard, Hansell, Dominguez and Vasquez, the appeals court affirmed a summary judgment releasing Rivera from liability.
Dallas city officials do not comment on pending litigation, a city spokeswoman said. Attorneys for the family did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.