From [HERE] In a striking decision, a federal judge ruled that Pittsburg officers may have violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a man who was killed when police cut off the blood flow to his brain during a struggle.
Humberto Martinez, 32, had been stopped for a traffic violation moments earlier, led police on a brief car chase around the block, then dashed into a Pittsburg home where several officers tried to arrest him in the kitchen. He suffered 16 broken ribs during the struggle, and died from having the bloodstream to his brain cut off by a police neck hold.
In his March 8 decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg did not take sides in the factual dispute between the city and Martinez’s family. But he did say a jury could reasonably find that Martinez’s rights had been violated, and he refused the city’s request to throw out excessive force claims against the police.
“A reasonable jury could conclude that, although he resisted arrest, Martinez did not deliberately strike the arresting officers, yet the officers delivered strikes that broke 16 ribs and deployed a prohibited choke hold that crushed the cartilage in his neck resulting in his death,” Seeborg wrote. “Accepting these facts as true, and taking into account the relatively minor underlying offense, no reasonable officer would believe this use of force complied with the Fourth Amendment.”
Seeborg, though, threw out claims by Martinez’s family that the officers violated Martinez’s First and 14th Amendment rights, saying there was no evidence two of the officers were “motivated by a nefarious purpose rather than a desire to subdue Martinez and end the struggle.”
In determining whether to let the legal claims proceed at this stage in a lawsuit, a federal judge is supposed to interpret the facts in a way that’s most favorable to the plaintiff, or the person suing.
Seeborg also noted a key disagreement between plaintiffs and defendants: Martinez’s family contends Pittsburg Officer Ernesto Mejia used an illegal chokehold during the struggle with Martinez, which the city denies. What is not disputed is that an officer continued to sit on Martinez after he had been handcuffed, before police realized he was dying.
Attorneys for Pittsburg police had asked Seeborg not to let the Fourth Amendment claims proceed, saying Mejia’s use of force “was justified and in response to (Martinez’s) escalating violence.” They wrote Martinez was “clearly an immediate threat to officers due to the fact that he was a very large and strong man, continued to struggle and assault officers, had not been searched for weapons, defied commands and violently resisted for over two and a half minutes.”
Police Chief Brian Addington declined to comment on the ruling. The city has appealed Seeborg’s ruling.
Martinez died July 26, 2016. In 2017, his family filed a federal lawsuit, naming officers Ernesto Mejia, Jason Waite, Willie Glasper, Gabriel Palma, Jonathan Elmore and Patrick Berhan as defendants. The suit alleges officers beat and choked Martinez, causing his airways to constrict.
Seeborg’s order also raises questions about Pittsburg police’s training as it relates to the carotid hold, which is designed to squeeze certain arteries in a person’s neck. It is employed by many U.S. police departments but has drawn criticism because it can sometimes cause arteries to close and not reopen.
Seeborg wrote that, “none of the defendant officers were familiar with the terms restraint, positional or compression asphyxia,” and that police Chief Brian Addington was “unable to point to any specific policy addressing these types of asphyxiation.”
An expert called by the plaintiffs testified Pittsburg police training on carotid holds was “out of step” with norms in law enforcement, adding that police are supposed to be trained that “placing pressure on a person’s back while they are prone and handcuffed, particularly if the suspect is overweight,” can be dangerous, according to court records.
The entire confrontation was captured on officers’ body cameras, which were released to this newspaper in late 2017, after a public records request. One video shows multiple officers rushing into the front door to assist two others attempting to arrest Martinez. When they arrive, an officer has Martinez in a neck hold as he lies on the floor and another is sitting on his back. The officer releases his neck about 50 seconds later, after Martinez is handcuffed and another officer says, “Get off.”
The other officer continues to sit on Martinez’s back for another minute.
During the struggle, police are heard yelling “Stop resisting” and “Give me your arm.” Another asks him, “What is your problem, dude?” After Martinez is cuffed, the officer who put him in a neck hold is told to go outside and relax.
As Martinez remains on the floor, an officer pats him on the face and says, “Wake up.” One asks whether Martinez is breathing and another replies, “Yeah, he’s breathing.” About a minute later, they realize he is “going purple” and call for medical help, while removing his handcuffs.
The footage shows several minutes of officers conducting CPR on Martinez, yelling, “Come on, bud,” and telling him to “Breathe” and “Wake up.” Another can be heard saying, “Please, don’t croak.” One says he thinks they’re bringing him back, but Martinez is led out on a stretcher minutes later and a family member can be heard asking if he’s not breathing.
A trial date for the lawsuit has not been set. On Thursday, the judge denied a request by Martinez’s family and ruled that the city could appeal his decision.