The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled unanimously Monday that qualified immunity does not protect officers from a suit for excessive force merely because the victim cannot identify them.
The court affirmed summary judgement for the plaintiff, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the defendants had “violated [Renee] Fazica’s constitutional rights either by directly using excessive force against her or by observing others doing so and failing to act.”
The court found that where the plaintiff is unable to identify which officers committed which acts but produces evidence that each defendant officer is a part of “a small group of officers that committed allegedly unconstitutional acts within each other’s presence, the plaintiff’s claim against that defendant may survive summary judgment.”
In the present case, Fazica alleged that four officers used excessive force against her while her face was covered by a “spit hood.” The court stated that “there are several ways that a defendant officer may violate a pretrial detainee’s constitutional rights,” then set out that Fazica has the burden of proof to show that the officer either actively used excessive force, supervised another officer who used excessive force, or owed the victim a duty of protection against the use of excessive force. Additionally, an officer who was aware that excessive force would be used and had the opportunity and means to prevent the harm to the victim can also be held liable.
The court court that Fazica provided evidence that creates a “disputed issue of material fact as to whether each individual officer was personally involved in the conduct that violated her constitutional rights.” And that a reasonable jury could find that each officer either committed or observed and failed to stop the allegedly unconstitutional acts.