Police across the country have often been caught using excessive force during arrests and other confrontations. Even when such incidents are captured on video, officers are often able to escape punishment or other consequences. Such appears to be the case yet again. In a controversial ruling, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that an officer who admitted to twisting a teenage girl’s arms to cause her pain did not violate the law in his actions.
The officer admitted to purposely hurting the teenage girl.
The case at the center of the controversial ruling involves Fort Worth, Texas, resident Jacqueline Craig and her young child. In 2016, Craig called the police to report an assault committed against her then-7-year-old son. Craig said that a neighbor choked the child for “littering” after the young boy had dropped raisins in the neighbor’s yard. But when Officer William Martin showed up on the scene, he berated Craig and her child.
Martin ended up violently arresting the mother and her 19-year-old daughter, Brea Hymond, who intervened in the argument. In the process, Martin purposely hyperextended Hymond’s handcuffed arms, and he admits he did intend to force her to tell him her name and age after she initially refused to do so. Video footage of the encounter between the Craig family and Martin was eventually released online, showing the confrontation that also saw Martin using violence against Craig’s other underage teenage children during the encounter.
The appeals court shot down the family lawsuit and upheld qualified immunity.
The Craig family understandably sued Martin for violating the rights of Craig and her daughter. The lawsuit made its way up through the courts and was initially allowed despite Martin’s claim of qualified immunity, the principle that exempts police officers from consequences for most acts of violence they commit while in the line of duty.
The Fifth Circuit ruling reversed a lower court’s decision and accepted Martin’s claim of qualified immunity in the incident. The court’s ruling also ruled that Martin did not violate Craig’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and is one of the most important protections against police overstep. Because Martin did not cause permanent injury to Hymond, the judges ruled his actions did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
A dangerous precedent was set by the court.
By ruling that Martin’s intentional use of physical pain did not violate the limitations of the Constitution, the ruling potentially opens the door for police to use increasingly coercive tactics to gain confessions or other information from suspects. Given the many cases of police brutality and even torture that have been documented over the years, any encouragement that police use violence against already detained individuals will likely lead to even greater abuses.
Experts hope that the full Fifth Circuit will overturn the ruling of the three-judge panel. Alternatively, the Supreme Court, which has overruled the Fifth Circuit in other cases, may ultimately be called upon to reconsider this case as well. Either way, there is still hope that the judicial system could deliver justice for the Craig family and in the process protect Americans from police brutality.