(CN) - A police officer who knocked a father unconscious while preventing the man's family from overcrowding a taxi cannot claim qualified immunity because video from his patrol car showed the man complying with his instructions, a federal judge ruled.
In 2009, Carlos Garcia and his family left a birthday party in Loudoun County, Virginia and were stopped by Officer Ray Sullivan when too many people tried to get into a taxi cab.
Garcia cooperated with the officer, but two female members of the party confronted Sullivan, and he called for backup.
Officer Terry Daniel responded to the call. He later claimed that he saw Garcia take a step toward Sullivan and heard Sullivan say, "He's got to go," before Daniel charged Garcia and knocked him unconscious with a blow to the back of the head.
However, "the video from defendant's dashboard camera shows something entirely different," according to the judgment.
The camera shows Garcia with his hands near his head make a small movement to the side, not towards Officer Sullivan. At no time did he appear to threaten a police officer, and Sullivan's K-9 dog remained calm.
Nevertheless, Daniel "delivered an elbow strike to the back-right side of Mr. Garcia's head while at full sprint," without giving any verbal warning, knocking Garcia unconscious so that he struck the ground with the full force of his weight. Another officer handcuffed Garcia moments later.
After reviewing the video footage from Daniel's patrol car, U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady refused to grant his motion for summary judgment.
"Defendant's actions were unreasonable given the circumstances at the scene, as he knew them to be. Mr. Garcia was not engaged in any criminal activity at the time. While two members of his party were scuffling with deputies, Mr. Garcia appeared to be calmly standing in front of an officer and his K-9 with his hands raised in a submissive position. Defendant claims that Mr. Garcia posed an immediate threat to the safety of officers at the scene, but that claim is without merit," the judge said.
In addition, a third officer at the scene testified that he saw no need for aggressive action against Garcia, and would have only verbally directed Garcia to the ground.
O'Grady continued: "Law enforcement officers play a critical role protecting all member of a community and may be afforded qualified immunity in order to protect themselves from lawsuits brought against an officer acting reasonably. ... Had Defendant conducted himself in the manner of a reasonable officer, he could have more appropriately matched the level of force used with the level of threat presented."