City of Escondido v. Emmons

Justia Summary

In April 2013, Escondido police responded to a 911 call from Emmons about domestic violence at the apartment where she lived with her husband, her children, and a roommate, Douglas. The officers arrested her husband. He was later released. In May 2013, Escondido police received a 911 call, from Douglas’s mother (Trina) about another disturbance at Emmons’ apartment. Trina had been on the phone with her daughter, who was at the apartment. Trina heard her daughter and Emmons yelling and heard Douglas screaming for help before the call disconnected. Officers Houchin and Craig responded, having been notified that children could be present and that calls to the apartment had gone unanswered. There is a body-camera video of the response. No one answered the door. Officers spoke with Emmons through an open window. A man in the apartment told Emmons to back away from the window. Sergeant Toth and two officers arrived as backup. Minutes later, a man opened the door and came outside. Officer Craig said not to close the door. The man closed the door and tried to brush past Craig, who took the man quickly to the ground and handcuffed him without hitting the man or displaying any weapon. The man was not in observable pain. Within minutes, officers helped him up and arrested him for misdemeanor resisting and delaying a police officer. The man, Emmons’ father, Marty, sued under 42 U. S. C. 1983, claiming excessive force. The Ninth Circuit agreed that the officers had probable cause to arrest Marty but remanded the excessive force claims.

The Supreme Court reversed as to Toth and vacated as to Craig. The decision concerning Toth was “quite puzzling” in light of the district court’s conclusion that only Craig was involved in the excessive force claim. As to Craig, it does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then remand for a trial on the question of reasonableness. An officer cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it. The Ninth Circuit’s formulation of the clearly established right was far too general; the court made no effort to explain how case law prohibited Craig’s actions in this case.