First Responders Don't Get Immunity for Delays
PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Deputies do not have immunity for detaining a dying woman after her police officer husband shot her in the face, the 9th Circuit ruled.
San Diego County Sherriff's Deputy Lowell Bruce shot his wife, Kristin Maxwell-Bruce, at her parents' home in December 2006. When deputies and medical personnel responded, they found Maxwell-Bruce alert and responsive, suffering from a gunshot wound to the jaw.
As deputies detained Bruce, Alpine Fire District paramedics concluded that they needed to get Maxwell-Bruce to a trauma center quickly.
They ordered an air ambulance, equipped with advance trauma equipment, which would arrive in 25 minutes at a landing zone 10 miles from the home. The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians Tribal Fire Department sent a vehicular ambulance arrived to bring Maxwell-Bruce there. At that time, the woman's vital signs were still within normal limits.
Sgt. Michael Knobbe took charge of the scene, though he was outranked by Capt. Gregory Reynolds and Lt. Anthony Salazar, both of whom arrived at the same time he had.
While Reynolds and Salazar stayed at the end of the driveway, Knobbe ordered the house evacuated and sealed and the Maxwells separated. The victim's mother, Kay Maxwell, was allowed to stay in an RV on the driveway with the grandfather and the children.
Deputies permitted the victim's father to pace around in the front yard. Officers would not let the Maxwells be together or follow their daughter to the hospital. Both parents told deputies they heard and saw nothing prior to the shooting.
Meanwhile, Maxwell-Bruce's condition deteriorated. As paramedics prepared her for transport - between 10 and 17 minutes after the ambulance arrived - she began expelling blood from her mouth. Medical personnel sat her up, suctioned her and placed her in the ambulance.
Knobbe meanwhile insisted on interviewing the patient in the ambulance. By the time he relented - 22 minutes after the ambulance arrived - the helicopter had arrived at the landing zone, a more than 10-minute drive from the scene.
Maxwell-Bruce died on the way to the helicopter. The San Diego medical examiner later determined she died from blood loss related to a non life-threatening gunshot wound.
Knobbe told the victim's father that his daughter had died about an hour later.
The father demanded to be allowed to tell his wife about their daughter's death, but Deputy Gary Kneeshaw ordered him to stay at the end of the driveway.
Maxwell then told deputies: "You're going to have to shoot me, I'm going to see my wife!"
As he began walking to the RV, deputies blocked his path. Kneeshaw eventually pepper-sprayed the man, hit him in the legs with a baton and handcuffed him. Capt. Reynolds and Lt. Salazar did not intervene.
Though deputies uncuffed Maxwell a half-hour later, they kept the family separated until they finished their investigation five hours later. Deputies then told the victim's mother about her daughter's death.
After the Maxwells filed suit, U.S. District Court Judge John Houston refused to grant summary judgment on the basis of immunity. The 9th Circuit affirmed Thursday
"The sheriff's officers found Kristin facing a preexisting danger from her gunshot wound," Judge Jerome Farris wrote for a three-member panel. "There is evidence they affirmatively increased that danger by preventing her ambulance from leaving. This arguably left Kristin worse off than if the ambulance had been allowed to bring her to an air ambulance that had advanced medical capabilities and was ready to fly her to a trauma center."
"The sheriff's officers appear to argue that the Maxwells must show that they acted with a 'purpose to harm' Kristin since this case involved a medical emergency calling for split-second decisions," Farris added. "This contradicts their earlier recognition that the appropriate standard is one of deliberate indifference. It also nonsensically suggests that a medical emergency faced by third parties justified the decision to prevent those parties from responding to that emergency."
Detaining the Maxwells, separated, for more than five hours was an obvious mistake, the decision states.
"We conclude that the sheriff's officers were on notice that they could not detain, separate, and interrogate the Maxwells for hours," Farris wrote. "The sheriff's officers have never claimed they had probable cause to arrest the Maxwells or reasonable suspicion for a temporary Terry detention. The crime was solved, and even if it had not been, it is a 'settled principle that while the police have the right to request citizens to answer voluntarily questions concerning unsolved crimes they have no right to compel them to answer.'"
Farris added that "the Supreme Court has never endorsed a detention longer than 90 minutes."
"The sheriff's officers point to their need to secure the crime scene," he wrote. "But there is evidence they did not perceive such a need at the time. The sheriff's officers were on the scene for over 20 minutes before Knobbe ordered the house evacuated. By that time, Lowell had confessed and voluntarily gone into custody. Jackson took Lowell into custody without handcuffing him or frisking him for weapons."
Furthermore, the deputies had no business keeping Maxwell from his wife - let alone pepper-spraying him and hitting him with a baton, according to the decision.
"If [Maxwell] did not resist arrest - and the sheriff's officers point to no evidence that he did - the use of pepper spray alone could constitute excessive force," Farris wrote.
Capt. Reynolds and Lt. Salazar also cannot benefit qualified immunity, even though they did not participate directly in the melee.
"The Maxwells contend that summary judgment is nonetheless inappropriate because a jury could reasonably find Reynolds and Salazar liable as the ranking officers present," Farris wrote. "We agree."
Farris and his colleagues also revived the Maxwells' claims against the paramedics with the Viejas Fire Department, whom the trial court had granted tribal sovereign immunity.
Precedent, however, dictates that tribal sovereign immunity does not shield officers sued in their individual capacities.
"We see no reason to give tribal officers broader sovereign immunity protections than state or federal officers given that tribal sovereign immunity is coextensive with other common law immunity principles," Farris wrote. "We therefore hold that sovereign immunity does not bar the suit against the Viejas Fire paramedics as individuals. The Viejas Band is not the real party in interest. The Maxwells have sued the Viejas Fire paramedics in their individual capacities for money damages. Any damages will come from their own pockets, not the tribal treasury."
Judge Sandra Ikuta partially dissented, saying that the Viejas paramedics do not deserve tribal sovereign immunity but the sheriff's deputies were just doing their duty on that tragic night.
"It is a truism that 'tragic facts make bad law,'" Ikuta wrote, quoting Supreme Court Justice Alito's dissent in Wyeth v. Levine. "Nevertheless, we may not furnish a cause of action where the law does not supply one. The deputies arriving at the Maxwells' residence faced a chaotic scene: a woman had been shot in the jaw; the perpetrator was still in the house; multiple ambulances and paramedics were responding to the scene; and frantic relatives were milling about. From the perspective of the deputies, it was more than merely reasonable to take steps to secure the crime scene and separate the witnesses-it was their duty. The majority has not pointed to a single case that clearly establishes that the deputies' actions here violated the Maxwells' constitutional rights. Under existing case law, the deputies are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions. I therefore respectfully dissent."