Phoenix, AZ – A ruling was unsealed on Wednesday that showed a federal judge ruled four Phoenix police officers are not entitled to qualified immunity in the 2017 death of a schizophrenic homeless man they were arresting.
U.S. District Judge Susan Brnovich said on Aug. 31 that disputes over facts during a key moment of the incident prevented her from making a pre-trial ruling on whether the officers engaged in excessive force when they arrested Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin, the Associated Press reported.
But Brnovich also said that the Phoenix officers who were trying to arrest Muhaymin ignored him three times when he told them he couldn’t breathe.
The judge said Muhaymin didn’t appear to pose a threat to the officers even though resisted when they re-handcuffed him, according to the Associated Press.
“Accordingly, the court finds that the law is clearly established that the officers’ conduct at issue of applying weight to Muhaymin’s neck area while he was in the prone position could constitute excessive force,” Brnovich wrote.
The records of the judge’s rulings were unsealed two weeks after the city of Phoenix settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Muhaymin’s sister for $5 million, the Associated Press reported.
The incident occurred on Jan. 4, 2017 when police responded to the Maryvale Community Center on 51st Avenue about a homeless man who was refusing to follow the rules, the Arizona Republic reported.
Muhaymin’s sister’s lawsuit said a city employee refused to allow her brother to enter the public restrooms in the building because he was carrying his service dog with him.
The dog did not have a leash and Muhaymin was not able to produce the paperwork to prove the dog was a service animal, police bodycam video showed.
Bodycam video showed that the staff member told police it wasn’t the first time that Muhaymin had brought the unleashed dog into the community center and that in the past, he had let the dog run around inside the building.
Then he tried to talk to Muhaymin calmly about how they could resolve the matter without employees having to call the police on the homeless man on a regular basis.
“This is the thing, I want him to understand that he can’t come in here with the dog that way. He can’t,” the city employee said in the video.
“He needs to be on a leash even if it’s a service dog,” the officer explained to Muhaymin.
The lawsuit claimed Muhaymin was suffering from PTSD, claustrophobia, and schizophrenia, the Arizona Republic reported.
Muhaymin was eventually allowed to go inside and use the bathroom, but while he was in there, police ran a warrant check on him and discovered that he was wanted, The New York Times reported.
When he came out of the bathroom, police asked him to stop and put his hands behind his back because he had a warrant and the suspect began to resist immediately, the video showed.
“You gotta put the dog down,” police told him.
The homeless man told officers who had no one to take care of his dog if he was arrested.
Police eventually took a resisting Muhaymin into custody by force while he howled like an animal, the video showed.
Officers marched him out to a police vehicle to transport him to be booked into jail, but when they got to the police car, Muhaymin turned violent again.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked the officers repeatedly when they went to search him.
He resisted and struggled and howled like an animal the entire time, the video showed.
Additional officers who had arrived on the scene helped take Muhaymin to the ground and, eventually, hobbled him.
The suspect continued to violently resist arrest and the video showed officers Tased him multiple times before he was restrained, with one of them commenting at one point that he was “out of juice” when his battery died.
A later video released by Muslim Advocates showed that at one point Muhaymin called for “Allah” while he was fighting the officers.
Brnovich’s ruling that the officers weren’t entitled to qualified immunity was unsealed by U.S. District Judge Douglas Rayes who was given the case in September, according to the Associated Press.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields police officers from liability for civil damages for actions taken while acting in the capacity of a law enforcement officers, as long as the officer didn’t violate a person’s established rights.
If an officer violates a person’s legally-established rights, they are not eligible to claim qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity does not offer any protection from criminal charges but was established by the U.S. Supreme Court to curb gratuitous litigation against police officers.
On a practical level, it allows law enforcement officers to make arrests and split-second decisions regarding use of force without fear of constantly having to defend themselves personally from damages, as long as their actions were legal at the time.
Even if officers are shielded under qualified immunity, people are still able to sue the officer’s law enforcement agency for damages.
The unsealed ruling showed the unresolved factual dispute in the case had to do with whether two officers forced Muhaymin’s handcuffed arms over his head during a search of his body or whether Muhaymin pulled his arms over himself, the Associated Press reported.
None of the officers involved in Muhaymin’s arrest have been criminally charged or disciplined by their police department for their actions during his arrest.
The autopsy report showed that the medical examiner found Muhaymin died from cardiac arrest in the setting of coronary artery disease, psychiatric disease, acute methamphetamine intoxication, and physical exertion when being subdued by law enforcement, the Associated Press reported.
Attorneys for the city have said that when Muhaymin died in the custody of Phoenix police, he had five times the toxic amount of methamphetamine in his system.