In August 2016, Tony Timpa dialed 911 to report that he was experiencing a psychotic episode and needed assistance. The Dallas Police Department dispatched their Crisis Intervention Training team, five officers who had special training to safely apprehend people with mental disabilities. A local security guard had already handcuffed Timpa when the officers arrived.
But the officers nonetheless bound Timpa’s legs and placed in him a prone position, in spite of the Dallas Police Department’s own orders to “not place [arrestees] in a prone position as it could result in positional asphyxia.” One of the officers then began kneeling on Timpa’s back, compacting his lungs. Over the course of the next 14 minutes, Tony begged for his life until he could no longer speak. He was pronounced dead by a paramedic almost immediately after being loaded into an ambulance.
A lawsuit from Tony’s surviving family members demanding justice for his death was blocked by a federal district judge’s decision that the officers were immune from civil suit. Although a previous case in the Fifth Circuit found police officers who had killed a man through prone asphyxiation were liable for unconstitutional use of deadly force, the district court held that case did not “clearly establish” the officers’ behavior as unconstitutional in Timpa’s case because those officers had employed a hog tie rather than kneeling on the subject’s body.
The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief last Friday urging the Fifth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision and allow the case to proceed to trial. The brief argues that the district court’s narrow construction of “clearly established law” runs contrary to the Supreme Court’s recent clarification and affirmation that prior cases with identical facts are unnecessary to defeat qualified immunity. Moreover, repeated misapplications of the “clearly established law” standard by lower courts have exacerbated a crisis of accountability for law enforcement, hardening public sentiment against police officers and making police work more difficult.
Read the full opinion
Read our amicus curiae brief