PHOENIX — A federal judge refused to give qualified immunity to four Phoenix police officers accused of excessive force in the 2017 death of Muhammad Muhaymin.
The Order on Summary Judgment was issued in August, but many records in the wrongful death lawsuit were sealed by a federal court judge until this week. The new details in the case come just weeks after the City of Phoenix agreed to pay the Muhaymin family a $5 million settlement.
Muhaymin was a 43-year-old man who was homeless and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court records.
On January 4, 2017, he had tried to bring his dog into a Phoenix community center to use a public restroom. Staff called police officers who arrested Muhaymin on an old misdemeanor warrant. During the struggle that ensued, one officer put the weight of his knee on Muhaymin's neck, and no officers stopped to help Muhaymin who said he couldn't breathe three times.
In her August ruling, Judge Susan Brnovich refused to dismiss the excessive force claims against four officers: Oswald Grenier, Jason Hobel, Ronaldo Canilao, and Dennis Leroux, saying they were not eligible for qualified immunity protections. The judge did dismiss the excessive force claims against six other officers who were on the scene.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects government officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability in a lawsuit unless the official violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. It is often used as a defense by police in excessive force lawsuits.
The judge weighed the circumstances of Muhaymin's arrest and death, determining there was a chance a reasonable jury could find the officers used excessive force.
Muhaymin wasn't being arrested for a violent crime, just a misdemeanor warrant, and while he did resist arrest, there was no evidence that officers feared Muhaymin would harm them, according to the judge.
The judge said the facts were in dispute on whether the officers, at one point, forced the man's handcuffed hands from the back, over his head, to the front. That painful scenario would be an “‘obvious’ instance of constitutional misconduct,” Brnovish wrote.
She also wrote, "applying weight to Muhaymin’s neck area while he was in the prone position could constitute excessive force."
The federal lawsuit will never go to trial due to the settlement, in which the City of Phoenix did not admit fault.
The officers were not disciplined for policy violations and were never criminally charged, but the Muhaymin family has called for those investigations to be reopened and the officers fired.
In August, the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the Phoenix Police Department. Federal investigators said they are focusing on officers' use of force as well as how they treat residents who are people of color, homeless, or mentally ill.