Three police officers used excessive force in a deadly encounter with a naked and unarmed college student and can be sued by his family, an appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.
The ruling from the three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati clears the way for a lawsuit filed by the mother of 19-year-old William Parker Martin, who died after an August 2007 struggle with police in Broadview Heights. The officers are accused of tackling, punching and kneeing Martin, and suffocating him by using their body weight to hold him down.
The lawsuit, filed in 2008 by Tanya Martin, accuses the officers of purposefully trying to hurt her son even as he struggled to breathe under their combined weight, and seeks a minimum of $400,000.
The officers had argued that they acted properly when Martin – who had LSD in his system – resisted their efforts to arrest him, and that they should be immune from the lawsuit under an Ohio law.
The appeals court panel ruled that Officers Ryan Tieber, Michael Semanco and Scott Zimmerman are not immune from the lawsuit because the Ohio law that offers immunity to officers in many circumstances does not cover actions done with “malicious purpose, in bad faith or in a wanton or reckless manner.”
“The quantum force the officers used was constitutionally excessive, violating the Fourth Amendment right of an unarmed, minimally threatening and mentally unstable individual to be free from gratuitous violence during an arrest,” Tuesday’s ruling said.
The officers’ attorney, Carl Cormany, did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.
Martin, who lived in suburban Brecksville and was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., was naked when he broke into an elderly couple’s apartment on Aug. 16, 2007.
Tieber said he was the first officer to encounter Martin, and that Martin ran toward his patrol car, asked him for help and then put his hands behind his back and asked to be taken to jail, according to court records.
Tieber said he grabbed Martin’s hands to handcuff him, but Martin jogged away.
That’s when Tieber tackled Martin and laid on him just as Semanco arrived. Semanco dropped his knee into Martin’s side to keep him on the ground, fell on top of both Martin and Tieber, and delivered one or two “compliance body shots” to Martin’s side with his knee, according to court records.
When Martin bit Tieber’s knuckle, Tieber hit him in the face with what he called “hammer punches,” wrapped his legs around Martin’s body, and gripped Martin’s chin with his right arm as Semanco hit Martin at least five times in his face, back and ribs, records say.
Zimmerman then arrived and kneeled on Martin’s calves as the other officers tried to handcuff him.
Soon after that, the officers heard Martin make a gurgling sound. When they turned him over, he wasn’t breathing. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Cuyahoga County’s medical examiner ruled that Martin died from an acute psychotic episode unrelated to the officers’ use of force, but two other forensic pathologists said Martin more likely died from suffocation and found injuries on Martin’s neck that were consistent with fingers.
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