Fifth Circuit Says Tasing A Person Soaked In Gasoline And Setting Them On Fire Isn't An Unreasonable Use Of Force

from the fucking-system-burns-him-to-the-ground dept

So, here's where we're at in the Fifth Circuit: cops can literally set a person on fire and walk away from it.

Judge Don Willett's incendiary comments opposing qualified immunity notwithstanding, civil rights litigation still remains a sucker bet in the Fifth Circuit, where cops are granted judicial forgiveness more frequently than they are in any other judicial circuit.

Here's the latest depressing read from the Appeals Court, which can't talk itself into removing this shield from officers who tased a suicidal man after he covered himself in gasoline, turning a potential suicide into an actual homicide.

Some cops seem to feel suicide threats should be converted into self-fulfilling prophecies. The cops involved here -- all Arlington, Texas police officers -- turned a distress call from a family member into the very thing the family members were hoping to prevent. From the opinion [PDF]:

On July 10, 2017, Gabriel Anthony Olivas called 911 and reported that his father was threatening to kill himself and burn down their house. Corporal Ray, Sergeant Jefferson, and Officers Scott, Elliott, and Guadarrama of the Arlington Police Department responded.

Behold the thin blue line that stands between suicide and threats to burn a house down.

Guadarrama and Elliott, at least, and maybe Jefferson as well, noticed that Olivas was holding some object that appeared as though it might be a lighter. Guadarrama, followed in short succession by Jefferson, fired his taser at the gasoline-soaked man, causing him to burst into flames. Corporal Ray and Officer Scott arrived at the scene at about this time. When they entered the house, they found Olivas engulfed in flames.

The fire spread from Olivas to the walls of the bedroom, and the house eventually burned to the ground. The officers at the scene were able to evacuate the family members who had remained in the house, but Olivas was badly burned and later died from his injuries.

With results like these, it's a wonder why anyone bothers calling the cops. If the family wanted their father dead and their house burned down, they could have accomplished that by doing nothing. Hell, they might possibly have prevented it. After all, the family had more at stake and would have been more willing to de-escalate. But the cops got involved and the rest is QI history.

The question comes down to what a "reasonable" officer would have done under these circumstances. But the court decides in favor of the less-reasonable officers, despite them being warned against doing this by other, more reasonable officers at the scene.

Upon entering, Officer Guadarrama detected the odor of gasoline. A woman directed the officers to a corner bedroom on the east side of the house. There they found Gabriel Eduardo Olivas (“Olivas”) leaning against a wall and holding a red gas can. After turning his flashlight on Olivas, Officer Elliott allegedly shouted to Sergeant Jefferson and Officer Guadarrama, “If we tase him, he is going to light on fire.”

The court says it doesn't matter than the man was burned to death as a result of being tased. The only thing that matters is whether or not he deserved to be tased. The court says the dead man earned his tasing. The unfortunate byproduct of his tasing -- his death, the family home burning down -- can't be held against the officers who set him on fire.

Olivas posed a substantial and immediate risk of death or serious bodily injury to himself and everyone in the house. He was covered in gasoline. He had been threatening to kill himself and burn down the house. He appeared to be holding a lighter. At that point, there were at least six other people in the house, all of whom were in danger.

Under this line of thought, the force deployment was reasonable. That at least one other officer on the scene felt otherwise doesn't matter.

The fact that Olivas appeared to have the capability of setting himself on fire in an instant and, indeed, was threatening to do so, meant that the officers had no apparent options to avoid calamity. If, reviewing the facts in hindsight, it is still not apparent what might have been done differently to achieve a better outcome under these circumstances, then, certainly, we, who are separated from the moment by more than three years, cannot conclude that Guadarrama or Jefferson, in the exigencies of the moment, acted unreasonably.

Even if it could reasonably be foreseen that tasing a man covered in gasoline would result in serious injury or death, it was not unreasonable to tase him because of the threat he posed. That following through on this act turned the threat into a reality apparently has no bearing on the outcome. The only thing that matters is whether it was legally permissible to tase him. Everything else is just noise, according to the Fifth Circuit.

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Filed Under: 5th circuit, police, police brutality, setting people on fire, unreasonable use of force

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Feb 2021 @ 4:23am

    All I can say is: in a sane world this would result in an impeachment.

    I wonder if we live in a sane world.

    (That last line definetly deserves a /s)

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