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McDowell v. Jefferson County

United States District Court, D. Idaho

January 18, 2017



          B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge United States District Court


         Plaintiff McDowell claims two police officers used excessive force when they illegally arrested him in his home. He has sued (1) Jefferson County; (2) the City of Rigby; (3) Steve Anderson, Sheriff of Jefferson County; (4) Keith Hammon, Chief of Police for the Rigby Police Department; (5) Antonio Gonzales, a Deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office; and (6) Emerson Parsons, an Officer with the Rigby Police Department. The defendants seek summary judgment on all claims.


         On June 23, 2015, McDowell shattered the windshield of a jeep that had been parked in his driveway, and then pushed the jeep into a neighbor's fence. Witnesses called the police, and Officers Gonzales and Parsons responded to the call. The officers took statements from the witnesses and heard McDowell (1) apologize to his neighbor for the damage done to the fence, and (2) yell at others that they better “get the rest of your shit before I push it out there like I did the jeep” or words to that effect. See Gonzales Deposition (Dkt. No. 30-2) at p. 52.

         At this point, McDowell, obviously drunk, was standing his yard. Officer Parsons activated his body camera, preserving a video and audio record of the events that night.

         The officers asked to talk to McDowell, but he refused, cursed the officers, and demanded that they get a warrant. Retreating to his front porch, McDowell continued berating the officers, and then went inside his home. The officers responded by asking McDowell to come out and talk with them. McDowell came out onto a covered porch attached to the front of his mobile home, and, leaning out of the porch area, continued to yell at the officers for trespassing on his property. After this outburst, McDowell walked back into the covered porch area and then entered his home through his front door.

         After a few moments, Officer Gonzalez walked up the two steps leading onto the front porch. Officer Parsons was behind him and had not yet walked up onto the front porch when he can be heard to ask “Are we taking him out?” See Gonzales Deposition, supra, at p. 62 (confirming that Officer Parsons asked that question). Officer Gonzales responded, “Yes”, and Officer Parsons can be heard radioing dispatch that they are going to take McDowell “into custody.” In his deposition, Officer Gonzales explained that by the time the officers walked onto the front porch, they had decided to arrest McDowell. Id. at 63.

         Officer Parsons then followed Officer Gonzalez onto the front porch. McDowell's front door was closed at this point. Officer Gonzales knocked on the door, and McDowell opened it just a small amount to protest that the officers were trespassing and should get off his property. Officer Gonzales, placing his right foot against the base of the door to prevent McDowell from closing the door, asked McDowell several times to come out of his home. But McDowell adamantly refused, continued to curse the officers for trespassing, and demanded that they leave. Officer Gonzales recalled that McDowell tried to close the door “with my foot in it.” See Gonzales Deposition, supra, at p. 77. McDowell can be heard grunting on the video tape as he apparently tried to close the door but was blocked by Officer Gonzales' foot. The door then swings open further and McDowell continued to protest.

         At this point, McDowell was about two feet inside his home while Officer Gonzales' left foot was on the porch and his right foot was resting on the door's threshold, partly inside the home and jammed up against the door.[1] Officer Parsons was standing on the porch directly behind Officer Gonzales, continuing to record the incident through his body camera.

         After a few minutes of this back-and-forth verbal sparring, Officer Gonzales told McDowell that he was under arrest, and asked him to put his hands behind his back. McDowell refused.

         About 50 seconds after telling McDowell that he was under arrest, Officer Gonzales moved his left foot into the home so that he could grab McDowell who had remained about two feet inside his home. Officer Gonzales gripped McDowell's right arm and pulled him out of the house and onto the porch. He put McDowell in an “arm bar position to get him to go down [to] the ground.” See Probable Cause Affidavit (Dkt. No. 30-2, Exhibit 2) at ¶ 15. Both officers commanded McDowell to “get on the ground” but he did not obey. Officer Gonzales then changed his hold “from an arm bar to an arm-over-arm bar position to get him to go down to the ground.” Id. When McDowell continued to stand, Officer Parsons placed the Taser on McDowell's thigh and tasered[2]him for just over 2 seconds. McDowell fell to the porch floor, at which point the officers handcuffed him and took him to the Jefferson County jail. They charged McDowell with malicious injury to property, resisting arrest, and obstructing an officer, each a misdemeanor. He eventually pled guilty to “disturbing the peace” under Idaho Code § 18-6409, a misdemeanor.


         Qualified Immunity - Legal Standards

         The defendants ask the Court to hold as a matter of law that they are entitled to qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity “protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). Qualified immunity gives government officials “breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions. When properly applied, it protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011).

         In determining whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, the Court must determine (1) whether there has been a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the officer's alleged misconduct. Lal v. California, 746 F.3d 1112, 1116 (9th Cir. 2014). Consequently, at summary judgment, an officer may be denied qualified immunity in a Section 1983 action “only if (1) the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting injury, show that the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the ...

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