Officers Can Be Held Liable For Preventing An Ambulance That Contained A Shooting Victim From Leaving The Scene And For Unreasonably Detaining Witnesses

The federal court of appeals recently rejected certain public officials’ attempt to avoid liability by claiming qualified immunity.  In that case, the parents and children of a shooting victim sued a county and individual sheriff officers for delaying an ambulance containing the victim from leaving the scene, detaining and separating the family for multiple hours for questioning, and pepper spraying the victim’s father when he tried to rejoin his family.  The victim ultimately died before reaching the hospital.  The family also claimed that two superior officers were liable for the actions of their subordinates.  Both superior officers were at the scene, but they did not participate in any of the allegedly unlawful acts.  The trial court concluded that none of the officers were entitled to qualified immunity in regard to the family’s claims.  The court of appeals, with one judge dissenting, affirmed the trial court’s decision finding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.  (Maxwell v. County of San Diego (9th Cir. Feb. 14, 2013, No. 10-56671).

Facts

Lowell Bruce (“Lowell”), a San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy, shot his wife, Kristin Maxwell-Bruce (“Kristin) at approximately 10:50 p.m. on December 14, 2006.  The couple lived with Kristin’s parents, Jim Maxwell (“Jim”) and Kay Maxwell (“Kay”), the couple’s children, and Kay’s father, Fred Stevens (“Fred”).  After the shooting, Kristen called 911 for help.  Lowell called 911 as well and told the dispatcher that he had shot Kristen.

Deputy Jeffrey Jackson (“Jackson”) of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (“Department”) was the first to arrive at the home around 10:53 p.m.  When Jackson arrived, he saw Kristin sitting in a chair talking on the telephone with the 911 dispatcher.  Jackson told a 911 dispatcher to send the fire department and then he escorted Lowell to his patrol car without frisking Lowell or handcuffing him.  An Alpine Fire Protection District fire truck arrived at about 11:00 p.m. with emergency medical technicians.  

The Alpine responders examined Kristin, determined she needed to go to a trauma center quickly, and requested an air ambulance.  They were told that it would take 25 minutes for the air ambulance to arrive at a landing zone 10 miles away.  An ambulance from the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians Tribal Fire Department arrived at about 11:00 p.m. with two paramedics to transport Kristin to the landing zone.  The paramedics eventually loaded Kristin on the backboard and took her to the ambulance.  When they arrived at the ambulance, Kristin began exhibiting sounds of distress and expelling blood from her mouth.  The paramedics unsuccessfully tried to assist Kristin.    

Sergeant Michael Knobbe (“Knobbe”), who believed himself to be in charge, arrived at the scene at 11:16 p.m., but Captain Gregory Reynolds (“Reynolds”) and Lieutenant Anthony Salazar (“Salazar”), who both outrank Knobbe, arrived around the same time.  However, “Reynolds and Salazar stayed near the end of the driveway and did not interfere with Knobbe taking control of the crime scene.”  Kay, Fred, and the children were sent to a motor home parked in the driveway, while Jim stayed outside.  Kristin’s parents “repeatedly asked to be allowed to stay together and follow Kristin to the hospital.”  Although they told the officers they had neither seen nor heard the shooting, the officers told them to stay put and wait separately to be interviewed.

Although Kristin was placed in the ambulance between 11:18 and 11:25 PM, Knobbe would not “let the ambulance leave immediately because he viewed the area as a crime scene and thought that Kristin had to be interviewed.”  The ambulance did not leave until 11:30 p.m., which was after the air ambulance arrived at the landing zone.  The ambulance took 11 minutes to get to thelanding zone but Kristin died en route due to blood loss.  The medical examiner concluded Kristin’s injuries were repairable. 

At approximately 12:45 a.m., Knobbe told Jim that Kristin had died.  Jim told Deputy Kneeshaw that he was going to tell Kay about Kristin’s death but Kneeshaw told Jim to stay put.  Jim stated, “You are gonna have to shoot me, I’m going to see my wife!”   When Jim started to walk toward the motor home, Kneeshaw told him to stop and tried to block Jim’s path.  “When Jim tried to continue walking, Kneeshaw sprayed him three times with pepper spray, struck him on the leg with his baton, and handcuffed him with Knobbe’s help.”  Salazar and Reynolds, who were still at the end of the driveway, did not intervene.  Although the officers removed the handcuffs about a half an hour later, they still kept Jim separate from the rest of the family until investigators finished interviewing Kay, which was around 5:00 a.m.  Kay and Kristin’s other family members did not learn about her death until after the interview concluded. 

The Maxwells sued the County, the Alpine Fire Protection District, the Viejas Fire Protection District, and numerous employees of the Department.  The district court denied summary judgment to the Sheriff’s officers on their claim that they were entitled to qualified immunity. 

Decision

The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity.  Pursuant to the doctrine of qualified immunity, government officers are protected “‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”  To determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, a court must consider “(1) whether the alleged misconduct violated a right and (2) whether the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct.”  Before a constitutional right is clearly established, it “‘must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.’”

Potential Liability for Impeding Access to Medical Care.

Based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause guarantee of the right to “bodily security,” the Maxwells contended “that the Sheriff’s officers violated Kristin’s right to bodily

security by delaying her ambulance and thus ensuring her death.”  As a general rule, the Sheriff’s officers could not be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an injury that was inflicted by a third party.  However, the court found that an exception to the general rule applied here.  This exception, the “danger creation” exception, provides that a government officer may be liable if he or she “‘affirmatively places the [victim] in a position of danger.’”  This occurs when an officer leaves a victim “‘in a situation that [is] more dangerous than the one in which they found h[er].’”  The court found that “[i]mpeding access to medical care amounts to leaving a victim in a more dangerous situation.” 

Here, the officers found Kristin facing a preexisting danger and the evidence shows they affirmatively increased the danger when they prevented the ambulance from leaving the scene.   The court concluded, “This arguably left Kristin worse off than if the ambulance had been allowed to bring her to an air ambulance that had advanced medical capabilities and was

ready to fly her to a trauma center.”  The ambulance did not contain any witnesses or evidence other than Kristin.  The shooter was already in custody, the gun had been recovered, and the crime scene had been sealed.  The court concluded, “It was obvious that delaying a bleeding gun shot victim’s ambulance increased the risk of death.”

Potential Liability for the Unreasonable Detention of Witnesses.

The Maxwells also asserted their multi-hour detention and separation violated the ban on unreasonable seizures found in the Fourth Amendment.  Accepting for the purpose of the appeal that the Maxwells were subject to seizure, the court questioned whether the detention was reasonable.  The court found it was not. 

The Maxwells alleged that they were unreasonably seized for over five hours merely because they were witnesses to a crime.  In order to determine whether the seizure was reasonable, a court must “look to ‘the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty.’”  The detention of a witness for investigative purposes may be reasonable under certain circumstances, but the detention “must be minimally intrusive.”  Prior case law “clearly restricts investigative witness detentions by showing that in the hierarchy of state interests justifying detentions, the interest in detaining witnesses for information is of relatively low value.”  The detention of a person without suspicion that the individual was involved in criminal activity involves “a lesser state interest than a detention based on such a suspicion.” 

The court concluded “that the Sheriff’s officers were on notice that they could not detain, separate, and interrogate the Maxwells for hours.”  There was no probable cause to arrest the Maxwells or reasonable suspicion to justify a temporary Terry detention.  The crime had been solved “and even if it had not been, it is a ‘settled principle that while the police have the right to request citizens to answer voluntarily questions concerning unsolved crimes they have no right to compel them to answer.’”  Also, there was no threat of destruction of evidence in the home.  Based on the alleged facts before it, the court concluded the detention was not reasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment. 

Potential Liability for Arresting a Witness Without Probable Cause.

Jim also claimed that the way in which the officers treated him when he tried to rejoin his family violated the Fourth Amendment.  The officers pepper-sprayed Jim, struck him with a baton, and handcuffed him when he tried to rejoin his family.  Jim claimed that the officers’ actions constituted an arrest without probable cause and with excessive force, either of which is an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  The court found there was no probable cause and the force used by the officers was excessive.

Potential Supervisor Liability due to the Failure to Intervene.

The court also concluded that Captain Reynolds and Lieutenant Salazar, who did not directly participate in any of the allegedly unlawful acts, can be held liable for the actions of their subordinates.  Captain Reynolds and Lieutenant Salazar were the ranking officers present at the scene.  A supervisor may be liable for a subordinate’s constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 “‘if the supervisor participated in or directed the violations, or knew of the violations and failed to act to prevent them.’”  The court concluded that based on the facts alleged by the Maxwells, Captain Reynolds and Lieutenant Salazar “tacitly endorsed the other Sheriff’s officers’ actions by failing to intervene.”  Therefore, Captain Reynolds and Lieutenant Salazar were not entitled to summary judgment in their favor.

No Tribal Immunity for Individually Named Paramedics.

Finally, the court determined that the paramedics could not rely on tribal immunity to avoid potential liability since they were sued in their individual capacities.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

William T. Chisum or Jeffrey L. Massey | 916.321.4500

Topics:  Domestic Violence, Governmental Immunity, Governmental Liability, Immunity, Police Misconduct, Qualified Immunity

Published In: Constitutional Law Updates, Criminal Law Updates, Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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