Fifth Circuit: Texas Police Get Qualified Immunity for Knowingly Using Taser to Ignite Gasoline-Soaked, Suicidal Man, Killing Him and Destroying Family’s House
by Matt Clarke
On June 25, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to re-visit its decision that Texas police officers who used a Taser on a suicidal man who had drenched himself in gasoline knowing it could ignite him were entitled to qualified immunity. Ramirez v. Guadarram, 3 F.4th 129 (5th Cir. 2021), reh’g denied, 2 F.4th 506 (5th Cir. 2021). The man was immolated in front of his wife and son and the conflagration spread to totally engulf the family’s home. Nonetheless, the Court ruled that police had “no apparent options to avoid calamity”—the possibility that he might set himself on fire—other than to set him on fire themselves.
The family of Gabriel Olivas called police to their house, asking for help with him because he was experiencing a mental health crisis. Arriving City of Arlington Police Officers Jeremias Guadarrama, Ebony Jefferson, and Caleb Elliott found Olivas in his bedroom with a “red gas can.” Guadarrama smelled gasoline. Elliott pepper-sprayed Olivas in the eyes, temporarily blinding him. He responded by pouring gasoline over himself.
Elliott yelled, “If we tase him, he is going to light on fire.”
All three officers had received Taser safety training. Nonetheless, Guadarrama and Jefferson tased him, igniting the gasoline and causing Olivas to become engulfed in flames. His wife and son were standing nearby, watching. The flames spread throughout the home, burning it to the ground.
The family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. The district court denied the police officers’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, and they appealed. The Fifth Circuit reversed, granting them qualified immunity, then denied the family’s motion for reconsideration.
In denying a rehearing, Circuit Judge James C. Ho defended the panel’s determination that the police officers acted for the family’s own good.
“The fact that Olivas appeared to have the capability of setting himself on fire in an instant and, indeed, was threatening to do so, meant that the officers had no apparent options to avoid calamity,” wrote the panel.
But that argument is absurd on its face: the only option police had to prevent a man from setting himself on fire was to set him on fire themselves? The family’s brief pointed out several other options—physically subduing him as he was only six feet away from them, evacuating the family out of danger, even backing off to reduce the psychological pressure on Olivas would have been better than sparking his and their home’s funeral pyre.
Circuit Judge Don Willet and two other circuit judges firmly dissented from the en banc decision to deny rehearing.
“In what legal universe is it not even plausibly unreasonable to knowingly immolate someone?” asked Willet rhetorically. “How is it reasonable—more accurately, not plausibly unreasonable—to set someone on fire to prevent him from setting himself on fire?” Yet that’s the very sort of absurdity endemic in qualified immunity jurisprudence.
The Supreme Court has recently shown disapproval of the Fifth Circuit’s overly generous interpretation of qualified immunity in favor of law enforcement. In November 2020, it reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision granting prison guards who left a prisoner naked in a cell containing “massive amounts” of human feces and another freezing cold cell covered in sewage. Taylor v. Riojas, 141 S. Ct. 52 (2020). In February 2021, it reversed the granting of qualified immunity to a prison guard who pepper sprayed a prisoner without provocation. McCoy v. Alamu, 141 S. Ct. 1364 (2021).
“The horrific death of Gabriel Olivas is also suffused in sorrow,” Willet concluded. “And while qualified immunity has enjoyed special solicitude at the Supreme Court, perhaps these ‘particularly egregious facts’ will prompt another meaningful message from the Court, one that marries law with justice (and common sense) and makes clear that those who enforce our laws are not above them.”
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