“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit Judge John Nalbandian cast the deciding vote to reverse a district court and grant qualified immunity to a police officer being sued for excessive use of force in arresting an African American woman in connection with a domestic dispute that resulted in no charges being pursued against her. The July 2020 case is Siders v City of Eastpointe.
Patricia Siders and her estranged husband Melvin, both of whom are African American, were having a loud dispute in her driveway that led to two Eastpointe police officers arriving on the scene. Officer Joseph Piro approached Patricia Siders , who was partly inside a minivan. What happened next was in dispute, but according to Siders, she was frightened as the officer approached her and started to close the minivan door, explaining that she did not want the officer to “walk up on me”, although she was willing to talk to him from inside the minivan. Piro replied “I’m gonna f****** walk up on you” and that if Siders closed the door “you’re going to get ripped out of the car.” She was unarmed, made no “evasive movements to suggest she had a weapon,” and did not pose a threat.
A scuffle then took place and Piro pulled Siders out of the car “by her ankles from the middle seat of her van” and threw her “to the ground.” She continued to object to the officers “touching her” and “flailed about” while she was on the ground, and was then tased by Piro and handcuffed. The police arrested her and took her to the station for booking, although she stated she was injured and needed medical attention. She was charged with domestic violence-related offenses and with obstructing an investigation, all of which were later dismissed.
Siders then sued the city and the two officers, Piro and Officer Rene Deladurantaye, both of whom moved for summary judgment against her based on qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity because of factual disputes on three claims: a claim of excessive force against Piro and claims of failure to intervene and deliberate indifference to a serious medical need by Deladurantaye. The officers appealed.
In a 2-1 decision in which Nalbandian provided the deciding vote, the court of appeals reversed the lower court, granted the officers qualified immunity, and dismissed the case against them without a trial. Although the majority acknowledged that Piro’s actions could reasonably be determined to be “impatient, overzealous, and perhaps unnecessary,” they maintained that based on video evidence and the rest of the “record,” Piro’s actions were not “wholly unreasonable under the circumstances” and did not violate “clearly established constitutional rights”, and that the claims against the other officer were “specious.” In their discussion of the record, the majority emphasized the claim that Siders “kicked” at Piro.
Judge Jane Stranch strongly dissented. She began by pointing out that even though the law clearly requires that the appeals court “must view the facts in Siders’ favor,” the majority opinion “fails to do so.” She explained that under the proper view of the facts, as opposed to the majority’s own factual conclusions, “genuine disputes remain” to be resolved by a jury on the immunity issue, precisely as the district court held.
Stranch then analyzed all the factors discussed by the Supreme Court in evaluating such cases and found they all came out in Siders’ favor. The alleged crime, involving a domestic disturbance, was not a severe one, and “all charges against Siders were ultimately dismissed.” Based on Siders’ version of the facts, she did not pose “an immediate threat to the officer’s safety.” Nor was she “actively resisting arrest” according to her version of the facts, since she at most “kicked at” Piro and was primarily engaged in “passive resistance” that does not justify the use of force, particularly since the majority itself acknowledged that Piro’s actions were “perhaps unnecessary.” Stranch pointed out that even the majority acknowledged that Piro could have investigated and arrested Siders “without using any force” by using such tactics as ordering her from the minivan and threatening to tase her without actually doing so. And the question of whether the “totality of the circumstances” justified Piro’s actions was also answered negatively under Siders’ version of the facts, Stranch went on, and is clearly a question for a jury to resolve. The majority’s “contrary conclusion” relied on the defendants’ version of the facts, Stranch noted, and properly has “no place in our qualified immunity analysis.”
With respect to the claims against Officer Deladurantaye, Stranch again criticized the majority for relying on the defendants’ version of the facts. There clearly was “sufficient evidence,” Stranch continued, for a “rational jury” to find that Deladurantaye improperly “failed to protect Siders from excessive force” and that she “knew of Siders’ need for medical attention and acted with deliberate indifference by failing to provide her with any medical care.”
As a result of Nalbandian’s deciding vote, however, Patricia Siders will not even have a chance to present to a jury her claims of abuse by the two officers. The case is yet another example of a Trump judge casting a deciding vote to reverse a decision that the issue should go to a jury and to immunize police from any liability for misconduct.
One sentence: Trump Sixth Circuit judge John Nalbandian casts deciding vote to reverse district court and immunize police officer against charges of excessive use of force against African American woman.