Mental Breakdown Death May Leave Cop Liable
(CN) - A Pennsylvania cop must face claims that he pepper-sprayed a man's dogs, Tasered him and shot him to death - all before obtaining a mental health warrant, a federal judge ruled.
The dispute stems from a mental health commitment warrant a Community Counseling Services employee had requested against Brian Williams during a counseling session in Tunkhannock, Pa., on Nov. 7, 2012, according to the complaint.
Melinda Williams, Brian's wife, said police officers from Overfield Township, Pa., did not yet have the warrant when they arrived at their home.
After Officer Mark Papi and others responded to a call for backup, they managed to "antagonize" Williams, who was having a "mental health breakdown," according to the complaint.
In addition to pepper-spraying Williams' dogs, the officers prevented his wife and mother from entering the house, according to the complaint.
Their conduct was all the more harmful because Williams had allegedly told the police chief "that he would come out [of the house] as long as he got to talk to his wife and mother."
Williams was allowed to speak with the women over the phone only, according to the complaint. Melinda said Williams told them during these conversations that he "had a bag packed and was coming out."
But "instead of waiting for Mr. Williams to come out peacefully, officers took out their shields and guns" and entered through the front and basement doors, Melinda said.
Believing that Williams was armed with a 2-foot long fireplace poker behind a closed door in the basement, several officers entered the room, armed with "shields, Tasers, and guns," according to the complaint.
The officers then knocked Mr. Williams to the ground and Tasered him multiple times when he tried to stand up, Melinda said.
It was "only minutes" later that Papi, who had been instructed "to stay outside, in the perimeter of the home," shot Williams twice, according to the complaint.
Williams died soon after, allegedly as a result of "multiple gunshot wounds."
Papi moved to dismiss the unreasonable seizure, assault and battery claims against him, but U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani denied the motion July 3, tossing aside the officer's "gross generalizations" that Mr. Williams "endangered" the police.
"It cannot be said that a passive individual with a mental health warrant against him is just as dangerous as an obstreperous one, or that a plaintiff with a fireplace poker on the floor out of arm's reach is just as dangerous as one thrusting the poker at police," Mariani wrote. "Rather, the factfinder must have specific information to determine whether all these facts and circumstances came together in the instant case to warrant the actions that defendant Papi took, before it can enter judgment in Papi's favor."
Papi is not entitled to qualified immunity under the Fourth Amendment, the ruling states.
"The protections of the Fourth Amendment are sufficiently clear that Defendant should have known that shooting Williams to death violated those protections," Mariani wrote. "It may be that discovery will cast a new light on the qualified immunity analysis. But on the face of plaintiff's complaint, there is certainly no reason to believe that qualified immunity exists as a matter of law, any more than there is reason to hold, for the reasons discussed above, that the killing itself was necessarily justified."
Punitive damages may also be available since Papi has not been sued in his official capacity, though he was identified as someone "working for" the police department.