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Federal judge tosses excessive force suit against five Dallas officers in Tony Timpa caseThis article has
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Timpa's family alleges that the officers, four of whom remain on the force, killed him in 2016 by using an improper prone restraint. But the judge says the five are protected by the 'qualified immunity' doctrine.

A federal judge in Dallas has thrown out an excessive force lawsuit filed against five Dallas police officers who handcuffed and pinned a mentally ill man to the ground shortly before he died.

In a 27-page ruling, U.S. District Judge David Godbey granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment in the case of Tony Timpa. The unarmed Rockwall man died in 2016 from “sudden cardiac death due to the toxic effects of cocaine and physiological stress associated with physical restraint,” court records show.

Godbey based his decision, signed Monday, on the controversial doctrine of qualified immunity. Under that standard, Timpa’s family had to identify a specific case in the Fifth Circuit court of appeals that clearly established that the officers’ conduct at the time was unconstitutional.

Tony Timpa died in August 2016 on West Mockingbird Lane in Dallas after a deadly encounter with Dallas police. A federal judge has thrown out the family's excessive force lawsuit against the five Dallas police officers involved.
Tony Timpa died in August 2016 on West Mockingbird Lane in Dallas after a deadly encounter with Dallas police. A federal judge has thrown out the family's excessive force lawsuit against the five Dallas police officers involved. (Andy Jacobsohn / Staff Photographer)

In the wake of highly publicized police officer killings of unarmed black men like George Floyd, Congress has begun looking at sweeping criminal justice reforms, including the possibility of lifting qualified immunity that protects officers from lawsuits when they abuse their authority.

Critics say qualified immunity allows bad officers to remain on the job.

Geoff J. Henley, lead attorney for the Timpa family, vowed Tuesday to appeal.

“This is exactly why qualified immunity must be abolished or at least modified,” Henley said in a written statement. “It allows officers to continue to use force that we all see and know to be excessive simply because there is no previous ruling prohibiting precisely the same kind of force. It’s squeezing a football through the eye of a needle.”

Tony Timpa
Tony Timpa(File)

Henley said no specific decision from the Fifth Circuit prohibited the officers from “smothering Timpa for 14 minutes” in a prone restraint and that as a result it didn’t matter if the officers violated Timpa’s rights.

“One of the more unnerving features of qualified immunity is that courts are free to disregard rulings against officers from other circuits,” Henley said. “There will be more unnecessary deaths unless there is real legal change.”

The city of Dallas, which defended the officers, had no comment about the ruling Tuesday.

Night of Timpa’s death

Timpa, panicking and high on cocaine, called 911 for help in August 2016 after running across traffic on West Mockingbird Lane, court documents say. He told a dispatcher he feared for his safety, that he suffered from anxiety and schizophrenia, and was off his prescription medications, court records say.

He was dead within an hour of that call.

A private security guard handcuffed Timpa before Dallas officers arrived. Timpa was unarmed, in shorts and barefoot.

The responding officers mocked the 32-year-old as he screamed for his life, with one officer’s knee pinned in his back for about 14 minutes as he lay face down in the grass, according to court records. They joked after he became unresponsive that he was going to be late for school, the lawsuit says.

Timpa’s death was ruled a homicide.

His family, including his mother, Vicki Timpa, had also alleged denial of medical care, bystander liability and supervisor liability claims in their lawsuit, filed in November 2016. They also sued the city of Dallas, but that was later dropped from the suit.

The officers involved were Dustin Dillard, Raymond Dominguez, Kevin Mansell, Domingo Rivera and Danny Vasquez.

Three of the officers later faced misdemeanor deadly conduct charges in connection with the death.

But last year, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot dismissed the charges against Dillard, Mansell and Vasquez. Creuzot said he met with three medical examiners who told him they did not believe the officers acted recklessly.

All but one of the five officers remain on the force, a police spokeswoman said Tuesday. Mansell retired in August 2019, the spokeswoman said.

Vicki Timpa's son, Tony Timpa, was killed in Dallas police custody in August 2016.  Her lawyer said the family will appeal a federal judge's decision to dismiss their lawsuit against five Dallas police officers.
Vicki Timpa's son, Tony Timpa, was killed in Dallas police custody in August 2016. Her lawyer said the family will appeal a federal judge's decision to dismiss their lawsuit against five Dallas police officers. (Andy Jacobsohn / Staff Photographer)

Dillard and Vasquez were described in lawsuit filings as two of the officers at the scene who used their body weight to hold Timpa facedown on the ground while his arms and legs were cuffed. Body camera recordings captured Dillard, several minutes after Timpa lost consciousness, saying: “I hope I didn’t kill him,” according to court records.

Timpa had told the police he’d taken cocaine that night and repeatedly begged, “Don’t hurt me,” according to the lawsuit. Vicki Timpa has said that her son had struggled with drug and alcohol use but was a successful executive and a loving father.

‘An exacting standard’

In his ruling, Godbey, the judge, wrote that qualified immunity shields “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” He called it “an exacting standard.”

“Even after being rolled onto his stomach, Timpa continued to yell, toss his head, and struggle to move his torso and limbs,” Godbey wrote. “He repeatedly kicked at officers.”

Geoff Henley, lead attorney for the Timpa family.
Geoff Henley, lead attorney for the Timpa family.(File / Staff Photographer)

The judge also wrote that different circuits have disagreed on the “constitutionality of prone restraints,” like the kind used by the officers in the Timpa case.

The Police Department’s policy discourages officers from pinning suspects facedown, particularly those who are on drugs or suffering from psychosis. The potentially lethal hold, called the prone position, can inhibit breathing, research has shown.

Henley, the family’s attorney, said the judge “discounted” cases across the U.S. in which courts ruled against officers who killed people with a “prone restraint.”

“The family is understandably distraught, but they’re not done,” Henley said.

Kevin Krause. Kevin has worked for The Dallas Morning News since 2003, and he has covered federal criminal courts for the past six years. Kevin has been a journalist for 26 years. Kevin is a multiple recipient of the Stephen Philbin Award for excellence in legal reporting. Kevin earned a BA from Boston University.

kkrause@dallasnews.com @KevinRKrause

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