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  • Jim Chapman

The Third Circuit holds that officers are not immune from elderly homeowners’ excessive force claim.

Author: Jim Chapman

 

In Anglemeyer v. Ammons, 92 F.4th 184 (3d Cir. 2024), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit succinctly noted: “Policing can be rough business.” Id. at 186. Despite this acknowledgement, the Third Circuit went on to remined that “the Constitution requires police to use reasonable restraint, even when force may be necessary.” Id. The relevant facts in Anglemeyer are as follows.

           

Plaintiffs/Appellants Richard and Ada Anglemeyer live in Bangor Township, Pennsylvania, with several family members, including their two sons—Jeffrey and Mark Anglemeyer—and their son-in-law, Joseph Kluska. At about 6:00 a.m. on February 23, 2018, forty-three officers with the Special Emergency Response Team (“SERT”) of the Pennsylvania State Police took positions outside of the Anglemeyer’s home and prepared to execute a no-knock search warrant. The officers were acting on information that Mark Anglemeyer had, allegedly, engaged in multiple sales of methamphetamine in a workshop near the family home. No other members of the Anglemeyer family were suspected of any wrongdoing. However, the SERT officers were informed that some members of the Anglemeyer family may own firearms. The officers were also informed that Mark Anglemeyer was a white male and was 52 years old.


Shortly after arriving, one of the officers noticed that Richard Anglemeyer was looking out of his window, and so, the officer radioed the other SERT members that the team’s secrecy had been compromised. Accordingly, the officers rushed into the family home. The officers’ faces were partially obscured, and they wore helmets but not nameplates or badge numbers. The four Plaintiffs/Appellants each provide their own account of the events that followed and of the injuries that they allegedly suffered.


Ada Anglemeyer was seventy-six (76) years old at the time of the incident. She awoke in her first-floor bedroom after hearing a loud noise as the SERT team forcibly entered her home. As she took a step outside of her bedroom while wearing her night clothes, Officer Clinton Painter struck Ada Anglemeyer in her face with his shield, causing her to fly backwards on her back. The blow broke multiple teeth and one vertebra, which required long-term treatment. Ada Anglemeyer also testified that the SERT officers did not announce themselves and that she did not hear Officer Painter give instructions or warnings to her before striking her.


Richard Anglemeyer was seventy-seven (77) years old at the time of the incident. He slept on the couch that night in the living room. Waking from the sound of his dog growling, Richard Anglemeyer went to the window where he saw flashing lights. He assumed that the lights were from a fire truck, and he thought that the house might be on fire. As he moved toward the door to investigate, SERT officers burst through and stormed inside. An officer (whom Richard Anglemeyer later identified as Officer Mark Benson) approached and shined a flashlight in Richard Anglemeyer’s eyes. Officer Benson then struck Richard Anglemeyer in the head with the flashlight, grabbed his neck, and forced him to the ground. The fall caused Richard Anglemeyer to hit his head on the fireplace, rendering him briefly unconscious. Richard Anglemeyer suffered multiple contusions and facial abrasions, and he tore the menisci in his right knee, requiring surgery.


Jeffrey Anglemeyer was fifty-five (55) years old at the time of the incident. He was asleep in the living room near his father when he awoke to a loud noise and to bright lights. Also thinking that there was a fire, Jeffrey Anglemeyer walked into the kitchen and was met by Officer Robert McGarvey, who shouted at him to get down. Before Jeffrey Anglemeyer could comply, Officer McGarvey clothes-lined him and forced him to the ground. An officer, whose identity is in dispute, then placed his boot on the back of Jeffrey’ Anglemeyer’s neck, zip-tied him, pulled him up by the zip-ties, and sat him in a chair. Jeffery Anglemeyer, then, witnessed the attacks on his mother and on his father, and he demanded that someone call for an ambulance. The same officer who zip-tied Jeffrey Anglemeyer slapped him across the jaw and repeatedly punched him. Jeffrey Anglemeyer suffered sprains to his shoulder and other lasting injuries as a result of this incident.


Finally, Joseph Kluska was forty-five (45) years old at the time of the incident. He was asleep in an upstairs bedroom when SERT officers burst into his room. Upon entering his room, Officer Matthew Wysocky jumped onto Joseph Kluska’s bed and zip-tied him. Though Joseph Kluska was cooperative, Officer Wysocky lifted him up and slammed him onto the floor. Joseph Kluska suffered tears in both rotator cuffs as a result, requiring surgery.


After subduing the four occupants, the SERT team searched the property. The officers did not discover methamphetamine, and Mark Anglemeyer was never convicted of any crime resulting from the search.


Thereafter, Plaintiffs/Appellants sued several officers who participated in the raid, alleging that they used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded that the SERT officers were immune from this suit based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity and entered summary judgment in the officers’ favor. Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a plaintiff may not obtain damages for a Constitutional violation against a public official unless the plaintiff shows that the official’s actions violated clearly established law. According to the District Court, under the facts presented by the Plaintiffs, the officers did not engage in objectively unreasonable conduct sufficient to constitute a claim for unconstitutional use of excessive force. The District Court further found that Richard Anglemeyer’s and Jeffrey Anglemeyer’s claims for excessive force failed because they could not identify, with sufficient particularity, the officer or officers who allegedly injured them. Plaintiffs then appealed the District Court’s dismissal of their case to the Third Circuit as it related to their claims against Officers Benson, Painter, McGarvey, Lopez, and Wysocky.


The Third Circuit began its consideration of this appeal by noting that courts use a two-pronged analysis to evaluate qualified immunity claims. First, the court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has shown make out a violation of a Constitutional right. Second, courts must determine whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct. The officers bear the burden of persuasion under each prong.


In addition, the Third Circuit explained that the right to be free from the use of excessive force has been recognized under the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the right of citizens to be secure in their persons against unreasonable seizures. The question in excessive force cases is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the officer, without regard to the officer’s underlying intent or motivation. Courts analyze this question from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. In making this decision, courts are to make allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.


In assessing the officer’s reasonableness, courts consider factors such as the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Courts also consider the physical injury to the plaintiff, the possibility that the persons subject to the police action are themselves violent or dangerous, the duration of the action, whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest, the possibility that the suspect may be armed, and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time.


Applying this test to the facts in this case, the Third Circuit determined that the District Court failed to construe the evidence in favor of each Plaintiff/Appellant. Instead, the District Court predominantly credited the officers’ version of events, which is inappropriate in resolving a motion for summary judgment. Instead, the District Court should have viewed the evidence in the Plaintiff/Appellants’ favor, and had the District Court done so, the District Court should have found that a reasonable jury could find that the officer or officers who harmed each Plaintiff used objectively unreasonable force.


As for Ada Anglemeyer, there was no dispute that Officer Painter struck her with his shield after she stepped outside of her bedroom in her nightgown. Giving weight to her testimony, Officer Painter could not reasonably believe that Ada Anglemeyer posed an immediate threat to his or to his fellow officers’ safety, particularly in light of her age and stature. Additionally, although the Anglemeyers owned guns, a jury could find that Officer Painter should have known that Ada Anglemeyer—confused and dressed only in a nightgown—was not armed. Officer Painter also knew, prior to entering the Anglemeyer home, that Mark Anglemeyer lived with his elderly parents and other family members, who were not suspected of any wrongdoing, and he could not reasonably confuse Ada with Mark, who Officer Painter knew was a white male and fifty-two (52) years old.


Furthermore, the Third Circuit held that a reasonable factfinder could also conclude that Officer Painter failed to give prior instructions or warnings before striking Ada Anglemeyer, affording her no opportunity to comply. Although Officer Painter contends that she failed to cooperate with his commands, Ada Anglemeyer’s testimony refutes that allegation. Accordingly, the Third Circuit held that, viewing these facts in the totality, a jury could find that there was no need for any force against Ada Anglemeyer, making Officer Painter’s conduct towards her objectively unreasonable.


Similarly, as for Richard Anglemeyer, the Third Circuit held that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Officer Benson’s force against him was objectively unreasonable. Based upon his testimony, Richard Anglemeyer was plainly unarmed and was cooperative, following Officer Benson’s flashlight with his eyes before Officer Benson gratuitously struck him. Moreover, Officer Benson could not reasonably confuse Richard Anglemeyer with Mark Anglemeyer, who Officer Benson knew was fifty-two (52) years old. In short, the Third Circuit opined that, like Ada’s case, a jury could find that no force was necessary against Richard—let alone force of the degree exercised, particularly against a non-threatening and elderly individual.


As for Jeffrey Anglemeyer, the Third Circuit stated that, weighing the evidence in favor of Jeffrey Anglemeyer, a reasonable jury also could conclude that the officers’ force was objectively unreasonable. Like his mother and father, Jeffrey Anglemeyer was unarmed and was not suspected of any wrongdoing. He also had no time to comply with Officer McGarvey’s command to get down before Officer McGarvey struck him with his shield. Once Jeffrey Anglemeyer was zip-tied, the officers could not have reasonably believed that he posed any threat, and there is no indication that he was resisting the officers’ restraints. Therefore, a jury could find that an officer stepping on Jeffrey Anglemeyer’s neck, yanking him up by his zip-ties instead of aiding him to his feet, and punching him—all while he was bound and defenseless— rose to objectively unreasonably conduct.


Finally, as for Joseph Kluska, giving weight to his testimony, the Third Circuit held that a reasonable jury could conclude that Officer Wysocky engaged in objectively unreasonable conduct when he picked up Joseph Kluska by his zip-tied arms and dropped him to the floor, tearing both of his rotator cuffs. Although Officer Wysocky saw a handgun lying on the back of the bed, Officer Wysocky harmed Joseph Kluska after he was fully secured, cooperative, and not at risk of flight. Accordingly, the Third Circuit found that the officers had failed to establish the first element necessary to be protected from this suit based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity as to each Plaintiff/Appellant.

 

Turning to the second element, the Third Circuit explained that the officers would be entitled to summary judgment based upon qualified immunity only if they can bear the burden of showing that reasonable officers could not have known that their actions violated clearly established law. Clearly established means that, at the time of the officer’s conduct, the law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand that what he is doing is unlawful. The central question on this element is whether the existing law gave the officer fair warning that his particular conduct was unlawful.


Here, all four Plaintiffs/Appellants had the right to be free from serious bodily harm as individuals who were plainly unarmed, substantially outnumbered by law enforcement, cooperative, not suspected of wrongdoing, and in their own home. The Third Circuit noted that the Plaintiffs/Appellants’ rights in this regard were clearly established at the time of the incident, and any reasonable officer in this case would have known that the officers’ force was unlawful under this set of facts. 


In sum, the Third Circuit found that a reasonable jury could find that the officer who harmed each Plaintiff/Appellant used objectively unreasonable force. At the time of the officers’ conduct, it was clearly established that it was unlawful for the officers to inflict serious bodily harm on individuals who were plainly unarmed, substantially outnumbered by law enforcement, cooperative, not suspected of wrongdoing, and in their own home. Therefore, the Third Circuit reversed the District Court’s order granting summary judgment to the officers and remanded for further proceedings.

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