Court approves officers’ use of force to restrain a possibly mentally ill subject who died during the struggle

Court ruled the officers had probable cause to detain the subject for his own safety and the legal power to use reasonable force to accomplish that detention


Richard Turner was a homeless 54-year-old Black male who lived in the City of Champaign, Illinois. On November 16, 2016, Champaign police received a call to check on Turner, who was well known to local police as officers had been sent to check on him often in the past.

Sergeant Frost had encountered Turner several times in the past and noticed that his mental health began to deteriorate about six years before the day of this incident. Past police encounters with Turner were resolved peacefully and some resulted in Turner’s hospitalization.

On November 16, 2016, an officer saw Turner rolling around on the ground at the corner of a public intersection. Turner’s pants were down; he was flailing his arms and babbling incoherently. Officer Young initially approached Turner and instructed him not to yell at people. Young then backed off and waited for other officers to arrive. Two other officers arrived and observed Turner walk past the police car and jaywalk across the street. Officers ordered him to leave the area, but he failed to comply and continually walked back and forth across the street. Officers decided that Turner should be detained for his own safety and protection. They intended to bring him to a local hospital for mental health treatment.

Officers called for an ambulance and instructed Turner to sit on a nearby curb. Instead, Turner ran across the street with officers in pursuit. They caught up with him and commanded him to stop. Officer Wilson grabbed Turner’s shoulder, but he pulled away and shoved Wilson, knocking the police radio off his uniform. A struggle ensued and Turner grabbed Officer Young with both hands. Wilson and Young pulled Turner to the ground and turned him on his stomach. They tried to handcuff him, but he continued to resist. Officer Young pressed his right knee into Turner’s shoulder and Officer Talbot attempted to control Turner’s flailing legs. Talbot placed his knee on one of Turner’s legs and his hands on the other leg. The three officers were finally able to handcuff Turner who was still kicking his legs after being handcuffed.

Sergeant Frost arrived at this point and brought a hobble (a strap) to restrain Turner’s legs. Turner kicked out of the hobble and officers placed it on him a second time with success. None of this struggle was captured on videotape but Turner’s estate did not dispute that Turner continued to struggle against the officers during the entire process.

Shortly after the hobble was secured, Sergeant Frost was audio recorded asking if Turner was still breathing. The officers quickly determined that Turner had stopped breathing.

Officers activated a defibrillator, but the machine instructed them not to deploy it but to do CPR instead. Paramedics arrived and took over medical care. Less than three minutes elapsed between the time officers realized Turner was not breathing until paramedics arrived. Turner never regained a pulse and was declared dead at the hospital. An autopsy found that Turner died from cardiac arrhythmia, i.e., his heart gave out from beating too fast during the struggle.

The autopsy revealed that Turner suffered from an enlarged heart that caused an insufficient blood supply to one of his heart chambers. This caused a heart arrhythmia, which in turn resulted in Turner's death. There was no evidence of suffocation or other trauma to Turner’s body.

The lawsuit

The Turner Estate filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 and alleged that officers Young, Wilson and Talbott had engaged in use of excessive force and Sergeant Frost and Officer Talbott had failed to intervene to stop excessive force. [1] The City was also named as a defendant for maintaining an unconstitutional policy of excessive force against its citizens. The federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit against all defendants without a trial by granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Turner’s estate filed an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

The Seventh Circuit decision: The initial seizure of Turner by grabbing his shoulder was reasonable

The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court and ruled that Officer Wilson’s initial decision to grab Turner by the shoulder to stop his forward progress was reasonable. Wilson had probable cause to believe that Turner’s prior actions conducted in Wilson’s presence provided him with sufficient reason to believe that Turner was a danger to himself and others. The court observed that Turner repeatedly crossed city streets while being seemingly unaware of his surroundings. This conduct was exacerbated by Turner’s unintelligible speech.

The court ruled that the officers not only had probable cause to detain Turner for his own safety but also the legal power to use reasonable force to accomplish that detention. The court explained that the right to use reasonable force to accomplish a lawful detention is not limited to seizures to deter criminal conduct but likewise extends to seizures conducted to protect mentally ill persons as well. The court ruled that Officer Wilson’s grabbing Turner’s shoulder to stop his unlawful flight was an entirely reasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment and did not constitute use of excessive force.

Failure to follow policy and procedure is not dispositive of constitutional issues before a court

The court noted that the officers chose to handle Turner’s situation without following a police department policy for handling mentally ill persons that called for initially considering the creation of “the least restrictive environment possible to meet the needs of the individual.”

The court ruled that it was not bound by non-compliance with police department policies and stated, “police policies, while relevant, do not define what is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Moreover, the court instructed that the “excessive-force inquiry is governed by constitutional principles, not police department regulations.” The court concluded its point by stating, “a police officer’s compliance with the rules of his department is neither sufficient nor necessary to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement.”

Taking Turner to the ground and restraining him was reasonable and justified

Turner shoved Officer Wilson and grabbed Officer Young at the end of the foot pursuit. After officers forced him to the ground, Turner kept resisting and trying to disengage from the officers’ hold on him. Turner’s active resistance continued throughout the encounter. Even after Turner was handcuffed, he continued the resistance. His failure to yield resulted in the necessary use of a hobble to enable control of his flailing legs. He kicked so hard that the initial deployment of the hobble was ineffective and had to be repeated before being successful.

The court found the force used by the officers to be reasonable and justified. The court explained, “the escalating force against Mr. Turner was a constitutionally permissible response to his continued resistance.” The court ruled that forcing Turner to the ground in order to handcuff him was appropriate. Moreover, “placing a knee on Mr. Turner’s shoulder was also not excessive given the undisputed evidence of his continued resistance while on the ground.” Finally, the court explained that “pinning down Mr. Turner’s legs and attaching a hobble were reasonable given…that he kept kicking and that he maneuvered out of the hobble when it was first applied.” The court concluded by stating, “Critically, Mr.Turner’s body showed no signs of suffocation or trauma from the officers’ force. The officers did not hogtie, choke or transport [him].” Further, “his medical conditions including his enlarged heart [were not] observable to the untrained eye.” [2] 

Conclusion

Turner had not acted violently at the time police first approached him and had committed no crime. He ran from the officers when they tried to take him into protective custody and physically resisted police efforts to stop his flight. Turner’s reaction necessitated the police effort to bring him to the ground. Once on the ground, Turner continued to resist requiring officers to use additional force to bring him under control. At each stage of the encounter, the officers used only reasonable force to bring the confrontation to a safe conclusion,

The officers used no force, pressure, or restraint upon Turner’s neck or breathing capacity. The Seventh Circuit took pains to point this out more than once in its opinion. So, the moral of the story is quite simple to comprehend. Officers should studiously avoid using control tactics on a resisting suspect that involve the likelihood of impeding the suspect’s ability to breathe. Turner’s death from the incident, tragic though it was, was not the fault of the involved officers.

NEXT: Suicidal man approaches officers with knife

References

1. Turner v. City of Champaign, No.19-3446 (7th Cir. 2020).

2. The Seventh Circuit likewise dismissed the other aspects of the suit, including allegations against the city, because there was no finding of constitutional culpability against the individual officers.

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