ESTATE OF ESCOBEDO v. BENDER (April 5, 2010)

At 4:24 on a summer morning in 2005, Rudy Escobedo called 911 and told the dispatcher that he was high on cocaine, armed, and suicidal. According to the complaint filed by his estate, the Fort Wayne Police grossly mishandled the situation. It alleges that, over the succeeding five hours, the police: a) engaged the Crisis Response Team and the Emergency Response Team, b) did not follow normal communication protocol, c) never complied with Escobedo's request to have his psychologist at the scene, d) decided to use teargas to force Escobedo from his apartment, e) actually used twelve times the incapacitating concentration of teargas, f) were forced to cut off communication with Escobedo because of the strength of the teargas and the location of the officer in communication with him, g) broke down his apartment door and threw in more teargas and a flash bang grenade, h) broke down the door to his bedroom and threw in more grenades, and i) shot and killed him. Escobedo never threatened anyone other than himself. Escobedo 's estate filed a complaint pursuant to § 1983, alleging that the use of the teargas and flash bang grenades constituted excessive force. On the individual officers' motion for summary judgment, the district court granted in part and denied in part. Its denial of the officers’ summary judgment motion on the excessive force claim was based on the courts' ruling that they were not entitled to qualified immunity. The individual officers appeal.

In their opinion, Circuit Judges Manion (concurring in part and dissenting in part) and Kanne and District Judge Kendall affirmed. The Court noted that the only issue before it was whether the individual officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Furthermore, the officers limited their appeal to the second prong of the Saucier qualified immunity test -- whether the law was clearly established at the time of the events in question that the use of teargas and flash bang grenades under the circumstances presented constituted excessive force. The estate has the burden of meeting the "clearly established" test but can do so in one of two ways: either by presenting a closely analogous case or by establishing that the conduct is so obviously a violation of constitutional rights that any reasonable0 officer would know. Although the Court briefly discussed the latter test, they declined to apply it because of its conclusions with respect to closely analogous case law. The Court addressed the case law with respect to teargas and flash bang grenades separately. With respect to teargas, the Court found controlling precedent and a clear trend in other circuits that the use of teargas is unreasonable when: a) the target is an individual, b) the individual poses no actual threat, c) there are no hostages, d) the individual has not committed a crime and is not attempting to flee, e) the individual, though suicidal, is not homicidal, and f) the individual suffers some incapacity. The Court found those elements present here. With respect to flash bang grenades, the Court noted that it had earlier found the use of such devices reasonable in Molina. It distinguished Molina, however, on the grounds that the officers there had serious personal safety concerns. It then cited dicta from other circuit cases which suggests that the use of the devices might not be reasonable if used in close proximity to a suspect or when the suspect is not dangerous. Although recognizing the relative dearth of precedent in the area and the lack of any precise guidance, the Court concluded that the holdings and dicta in the cases that do exist clearly show that the use of the device in the circumstances of this case is unreasonable.

Judge Manion concurred in part and dissented in part. With respect to the teargas, he agreed with the result although he would have reached it under the patently obvious violation route rather than the closely analogous case law route. He disagreed, however with the Court's conclusion on the use of flash bang devices. Judge Manion criticized the majority's treatment of Molina. Although he agreed that the cases were distinguishable, he considers Molina the leading authority in the circuit on the issue and should not have been limited to its facts in favor of dicta from other cases. Even the dicta in the other cases, he believed, did not come close to meeting the "clearly established" standard.