The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling Monday in favor of three Rio Grande City police officers who, in 2014, shocked a woman with a stun gun as she attempted to flee from them.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez granted a summary judgment in favor of the city and the officers in March 2019, but in their ruling Monday, the 5th Circuit stated a summary judgment was improper given the existence of factual disputes over what actually occurred during the incident.
Julissa Peña, who was 17 at the time of the incident, alleged that on June 30, 2014, her parents had taken her to the Rio Grande City Police Department.
Earlier that morning, her parents had met with a Rio Grande City juvenile officer, Humberto Vela, because Peña and her younger sister had run away from home the day before, according to the 5th Circuit’s summary of the case.
Though neither Peña nor her sister were suspected of a crime, their parents asked officer Vela to “talk with the girls when they returned home and ‘scare’ them into believing they would be arrested in order to teach them a lesson.”
When Peña and her parents arrived at the police department that day, Peña said she was seated in the rear passenger seat of her father’s car.
What happened next is under dispute.
She alleged that her father, Daniel Peña, got out of the car and called over to Vela who was outside the police department in his patrol unit.
But Vela claimed he approached the car after seeing that Peña and her father were having an altercation.
When her father then asked her to get out, Peña refused, according to her original petition.
“The male police officer then threatened Julissa. He told her, ‘Get out or I’m gonna tase you!’” the petition stated. “Julissa then opened the rear passenger door(,) exited the vehicle and ran away from the vehicle.”
Vela had testified that, at one point, he was inside the car with Peña and that as he attempted to detain her, she “struck” and “kicked” him several times, according to court documents.
Peña, however, testified that Vela “kind of got into the vehicle a little bit,” but that her father was in the car next to her, between her and Vela. She also included an affidavit in which she swore she did not kick Vela or any other officer.
“Although the extent of the interaction between Vela and Peña is disputed, it is undisputed that Peña was in the backseat of the car and Vela ordered Peña to get out of the car and attempted to handcuff her,” the 5th Circuit stated. “Peña refused.”
What is also known is that Vela eventually called in a report of a “domestic in progress” and requested assistance, after which Lt. Jose Solis, officer Rosa Salinas, and officer Ana Balderas Ramirez arrived at the scene.
When she ran off, Salinas and Solis chased after her. Solis allegedly ordered Salinas three times to shock Peña with the stun gun, and, “without stopping to properly aim, Salinas fired her Taser at Peña.”
The stung gun prongs lodged into her back and scalp, the 5th Circuit opinion stated, and she fell face first, striking the pavement.
Peña said her two front teeth broke when her face hit the floor and she claimed other injuries such as lacerations to her chin, cheek and forehead. More injuries included a minor scar above her upper lip, bruises, burns and cuts to her right arm; both legs and knees and right foot, as well as lacerations above her left breast that left minor scars.
She said she also started experiencing headaches shortly after the incident.
After she was discharged from the hospital where she was treated for her injuries, she was taken to the jail and booked for evading arrest and resisting arrest.
Peña sued the city in August 2015 in state district court, but the case was moved to federal court in February 2016.
It was there that Alvarez dismissed the case in March 2019 on the basis of qualified immunity and found that a summary judgment was proper in this case because there was no genuine dispute as to material facts in the case.
But the 5th Circuit reached a different conclusion, arguing that there was a dispute in material fact given the differences in Peña’s and the officers’ accounts of what happened.
And when it came to immunity for the officers, the 5th Circuit stated the trial court should have viewed the summary judgment evidence in the “light most favorable” to Peña in determining whether the officers used excessive force and whether their actions violated clearly established law.
“Peña has established genuine disputes of material fact regarding whether the officers’ use of force was excessive and objectively unreasonable,” the 5th Circuit stated.
“Resolving those disputed facts in her favor, we conclude that Peña has sufficiently shown that a jury could conclude that the level of force the defendants used against her was unreasonable in relation to the threat that she presented and the surrounding circumstances, violating her right to be free from excessive force.”
Following the ruling by the 5th Circuit, an attorney for Peña, Mauro F. Ruiz, noted how long it had been since he first filed the lawsuit in 2015.
“There needs to be a more efficient and better way to hold government actors accountable when they trample on the constitutional rights of United States citizens,” Ruiz said.
Though unable to comment on the case, specifically, Rio Grande City Chief Noe Castillo said they do have policies in place regarding the use of force and the use of stun guns among their officers.
“Tasers are intended for use of force options that is used against combative subjects or assaulting behavior, people that are resisting arrest and threatening harm to themselves or others, that’s part of our policy,” Castillo said.
It’s a tool they use, he said, to try to keep everyone safe, including the officers. He added that officers have to attend an annual training in order to be certified to carry one.
Castillo noted that scuffles with combative subjects had gone down considerably, though he said he couldn’t immediately provide a percentage.
The public, he said, were educated to what measures the officers implemented — such as stung guns and body cameras — to the point that just knowing the officers carried them was a good preventative measure.
“Now, you try to talk to people a little bit more and try not to get to the Taser, try not to get to the hands-on scuffle thing.” Castillo said. “We’re not here to hurt anybody; we’re actually here to help people and make a difference and sometimes somebody’s under the influence of alcohol or drugs — they’re not themselves.”
The chief said their goal was to safeguard the community and that Tasers are not something they necessarily want to use.
“But if it helps … cops (from) getting hurt or some members of our public getting hurt, without even using it, that is a big plus,” Castillo said.
No new hearings on the case have yet been scheduled.