ATLANTA (CN) — An Alabama police officer who broke a seventh-grader’s arm while handcuffing him at school asked the 11th Circuit on Wednesday to toss out a federal judge’s refusal to block an excessive force lawsuit filed against him.
An attorney for school resource officer Blake Dorminey told a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court that his client had no choice but to forcibly subdue a student identified in court documents as J.I.W.
The panel appeared divided on whether the 13-year-old had committed any crime which would have justified the officer’s actions.
J.I.W. was having a bad day in October 2018 when he crossed paths with Dorminey. He had grown agitated in class at Slocomb Middle School and was asked to go out into the hallway by his teacher. Once outside the classroom, J.I.W. yelled and punched a metal locker.
The student had a history of outbursts and had been diagnosed with a host of psychiatric disorders including bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD.
When the school’s principal approached him, the teen allegedly walked toward him aggressively with his fists clenched and chest out. J.I.W. did not hit the principal or anyone else.
Dorminey intervened, explaining later that he had reasonable suspicion to believe that J.I.W. had committed crimes including disorderly conduct, attempted harassment and attempt to commit second-degree assault.
The officer put the student in a wristlock, pulling his arm behind his back three times. Dorminey said in a post-incident report that he heard J.I.W.’s arm “pop” as he slammed the student to the ground.
The lawsuit filed by the student’s mother alleges that Dorminey put her son in handcuffs while he writhed on the floor and screamed that he was in pain.
J.I.W.’s arm turned out to be broken and required two surgeries to heal.
An Alabama federal judge ruled last year that the officer’s use of force was unreasonable and rejected his request for qualified immunity. Dorminey’s motion to dismiss the assault and battery claims against him was also denied.
Arguing on behalf of Dorminey on Wednesday, attorney James Pike of Shealy Pike told the panel that at least two witnesses who described the moments leading up to J.I.W.’s arrest said the teen looked like he was going to hit the principal. A third witness alleged that J.I.W. lunged in the principal’s direction, the attorney said.
Pike described J.I.W. as combative and said Dorminey acted appropriately to “stop a crime in process.” He told the panel that the officer warned J.I.W. four times that he would be handcuffed if he did not calm down.
But an attorney for J.I.W. said that his client did not pose a threat to anyone.
“When you consider the severity of the crime, the lack of threats to anyone and the lack of attempts to evade… You have a 13-year-old disabled child on the ground. I don’t understand why that student needs to be handcuffed,” attorney William Tipton “Bo” Johnson III argued.
U.S. District Judge Emily Marks wrote in her ruling rejecting Dorminey’s argument for qualified immunity that a video of the incident showed the principal standing near the student “without displaying fear.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Luck and Clinton-appointed Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Hull appeared to disagree over whether a reasonable officer would believe that the student posed a risk of harm to people in the school.
While Hull pointed out that no one has alleged J.I.W. ever actually hit the principal, Luck questioned why the student could not be arrested for acting in a threatening manner toward the man.
“[J.I.W.] lunged at someone with a closed fist. That’s not against the law in Alabama?” Luck asked.
Luck also seemed to agree with Pike’s claim that the arrest could be justified because the teen allegedly “hip-checked” the officer.
Johnson insisted that the student never caused anyone any physical injury and that the alleged attempted assault on the officer was disputed.
Although Johnson conceded that the principal may have perceived that the student was going to lunge at or hit him, he said there is “no evidence [the student] took a swing.”
The panel also focused its inquiry on the moment after Dorminey said he heard the student’s arm “pop.” Luck indicated that Dorminey’s actions after the student was audibly injured could determine whether his use of force was excessive.
Pike said that the officer relaxed his pressure on J.I.W.’s arm but kept him in handcuffs for three minutes until a nurse arrived because the student continued to kick his feet and resist arrest.
“Just because something popped, doesn’t mean a person is disabled,” Pike said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew Brasher tried to put the incident into perspective, reminding the parties that the altercation happened in just seconds. “One reason we have qualified immunity is these things happen really quickly,” Brasher, a Trump appointee, said.
But Johnson argued that Dorminey should have had the training and ability to make good decisions.
“I think you have to put some responsibility on Dorminey. J.I.W. doesn’t have a weapon, he’s not verbally threatened anyone in the area,” the attorney said. “Dorminey could have stopped right there. He was aware enough to hear a pop.”
The panel did not indicate when it will reach a decision in the case.
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