What constitutes the use of excessive force by police? Here’s a worrisome story about something that apparently doesn’t — not, at least, according to a decision earlier this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

On the morning of Jan. 1, 2013, a police officer in Mankato, Minn., found a man named Andrew Layton asleep on the floor of a supermarket “in the fetal position with a jacket pulled over his head.” When the officer tried to wake him, Layton “responded aggressively.” The officer knocked him to the ground and knelt on his back, holding him down as he kicked and thrashed.

Other officers soon arrived. As Layton continued to struggle on the ground, one of the officers (here and throughout, these are the court’s descriptions) “used knee strikes on Layton’s shoulder and knelt on Layton’s back” and “struck Layton’s right arm up to six times with a closed fist.” Others held down Layton’s head, arms and legs. One officer “deployed her taser twice in drive-stun mode against Layton’s thigh.” Finally, the police got him cuffed and added leg restraints. They added a mask, because he was spitting. Deciding that Layton must be “methed out,” they called an ambulance — not to take him to the hospital, but to take him to jail “because using the squad car would require removal of Layton’s restraints.”

The paramedics arrived and, according to the court, concluded “that Layton did not need emergency medical treatment.” (As we shall see, the court might be wrong about this.) Layton was placed on a cot and loaded into the ambulance, where he rolled onto his stomach. The police did not turn him onto his back. Instead, they put a pillow under his head and turned his head to the side. One officer “knelt on Layton’s shoulder to apply a wrist restraint.”

Layton continued to struggle all the way to jail. One officer held his shoulder down. A paramedic monitored his pulse and breathing. Then this happened: “When they moved Layton into the booking area of the jail, officers discovered Layton was in cardiac arrest. They removed his restraints, initiated CPR, and applied a defibrillator. While they restored a cardiac rhythm and brought Layton to a hospital, Layton never regained consciousness. He died on January 5, 2013.”

An autopsy determined that Layton suffered from pneumonia as well as heart and liver disease. He tested positive for both amphetamines and alcohol. And then there was this: “His body had multiple abrasions and contusions; there was bleeding between his skull and scalp and in his neck.”

Layton’s mother sued. She did not challenge the force the police used to subdue her son, who was, she claims, suffering from excited delirium syndrome, a common side effect of methamphetamine abuse. But once he was shackled, says the lawsuit, the officers should have taken better care of him. In particular, the lawsuit argued that by leaving him on his stomach, the officers contributed to his death.

The court of appeals, in a short opinion, ruled that the suit could not go forward because the officers are entitled to the qualified immunity that attaches to state officials when a reasonable person in the position of the defendant wouldn’t have realized that the conduct in question violated the plaintiff’s rights. The trial court was ordered to grant summary judgment on behalf of the officers.


Quick legal rule: When defendants move for summary judgment, the trial court must decide whether there are any material facts in dispute. If two sides differ on a factual question that would affect the outcome, the case must proceed to trial.

In the Layton case, there are disputed facts aplenty, helpfully catalogued in the district court’s opinion — which this decision just reversed.

Let’s look at a trio of important ones.

First of all, remember how the officers left Layton on his stomach and kept pressing him down because he kept struggling? The court of appeals accepted the view that he continued to resist. Another fair reading of the evidence, the trial judge noted, is that “Layton was struggling to breathe and showed he was in great discomfort or distress.” The trial court wasn’t saying that this interpretation is correct, only that the matter is in dispute — and, clearly, significant.

Here’s a second: Whatever Layton may have been doing, why did he remain on the supermarket floor — in the trial judge’s words — “positioned on his stomach from 4:45 a.m. to approximately 5:25 a.m.”? According to the officers, they kept him face down because he was a danger to himself or others. But they did not dispute, wrote the judge, “that when a suspect is restrained, it is best to keep him on his side or in a recovery (sitting up) position.” That’s because keeping the suspect face down is known to be hazardous. Layton was restrained, his wrists and ankles cuffed. Did keeping him on his stomach amount to excessive force? That, too, is a question of fact, and the trial court found that it remained in dispute.

And here’s a third: Who decided that Layton did not need to go to the hospital? The decision notes that the officers could not have known Layton was in distress because the paramedics said he was stable. But, as the trial court pointed out, one of the paramedics said at deposition that he and his partner were told upon arrival that Layton was going to jail. So there’s also a question, and plainly an important one, about who made the decision not to take him to the hospital.

The reason these issues matter is that qualified immunity attaches only if, in the words of the court of appeals, “the officers’ use of force did not violate clearly established law” or “exhibit deliberate indifference to medical needs.” In a detailed opinion, the trial judge correctly concluded that these facts remain in dispute. This reversal is written as though they aren’t.

Police officers have a tough and dangerous job. Due to hindsight bias, they often take unfair flak for spur-of-the-moment decisions that their critics might well have made the same way. But there are still cases worth litigating, if only to ensure that clear lines haven’t been crossed, and the treatment of Andrew Layton presents one.

I’m not prejudging the outcome. Maybe, had the police kept him sitting up or on his back, Layton would still be alive. On the other hand, he was a heavy meth user, and subduing him required strenuous effort by five officers. If both sides were heard, maybe the choices made by police on the scene would be vindicated. But because of the Eighth Circuit’s shaky decision, we’ll never know for sure.