Richards v. County of Wastenaw

2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 19896 (6th Cir.)

Sixth Circuit Appellate Court

Our “prior opinions clearly establish that it is unreasonable to use significant force on a restrained subject, even if some level of passive resistance is presented.

On Saturday October 1, 2016, Mr. Bryan Richards was in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a group of friends to attend a University of Michigan football game versus the University of Wisconsin. At the time, Mr. Richards was 46 years old, 5’11” tall, and weighed 300 lbs. Prior to the game, he consumed at least five 12-ounce beers between 12:30 PM and 2:45 PM. A little before 3:30 PM, the scheduled start time for the game, the group proceeded to the stadium on foot. Mr. Richards suffered from arthritis in his left ankle, so he put his arms around his friends for support. Inside the stadium, Mr. Richards’s friends continued to support him as the group walked to their seats. It was then that UM police officers approached the group and asked Mr. Richards if he was drunk. He denied being drunk, but the officers gave him an ultimatum: He could either go to the stadium’s emergency medical area or be arrested. Mr. Richards agreed to go to the medical area. He was then strapped onto a motorized cart and transported to the medical area, which was located near Gate Nine of Michigan Stadium.

At the medical area, Mr. Richards was placed on a gurney with steel railings on both sides. He was offered, but refused, a breathalyzer test. He complied for “[p]robably about 15 minutes” with tests and questions from the medical staff, but then decided to leave. While he was scooting to the end of the gurney, Paramedic Rick Johnson “shoved” him back, telling him that he could not leave because he was drunk, to which Mr. Richards replied, “I’m not drunk.” Mr. Richards continued scooting off the gurney during this exchange, and when he stood up, Paramedic Johnson “grabbed” his “right arm by the bicep” and would not let go, even as Mr. Richards tried to pull away. After “probably less than ten seconds” of this, someone – Mr. Richards’s testimony gives no indication that, until this point, anyone other than Paramedic Johnson and a nurse were in the medical area – grabbed Mr. Richards by the left arm, twisting it behind him and bending him over.  Someone else then jumped over Mr. Richards’s head onto his back, causing Mr. Richards to fall to his hands and knees. Mr. Richards was later able to identify these two individuals as Officer Berent and Deputy Cratsenburg. While he was on the ground, the officers continued “jumpin’ up and down on” Mr. Richards until he was flat on the floor with his “hands pinned underneath” him. The entire incident, from his first encounter with Paramedic Johnson until he was pinned on the ground, took “maybe 20, 25 seconds.”

Once he was on the ground, the officers told Mr. Richards to “stop resisting” and to put his hands behind his back but he could not comply because his hands were pinned underneath him. After the officers “let up a little bit,” Mr. Richards rolled over so that he could be handcuffed. The officers told him he was under arrest for “public intoxication” and took him to a separate holding area where he realized he was bleeding from cuts on his head. Foreshadowing, Mr. Richards told the officers that they were “gonna’ get sued” and asked why they could not have just told him to put his hands behind his back before taking him to the ground.

Officer Berent concedes that he was the first officer to respond and immediately “grabbed [Richards’s] left arm” in an attempt “to place [Richards] under arrest.” Deputy Cratsenburg concedes that, when he arrived at the medical area, he joined the officers who took Mr. Richards to the ground. While Officer Berent and Deputy Cratsenburg “took [Richards] down to his knees,” Sgt. Thomas Arnett “assisted by taking control of [Richards’s] legs and helping place him in a prone position” to be handcuffed. None of the officers told Mr. Richards that he was under arrest.

The Washtenaw County prosecutor charged Mr. Richards with one count of misdemeanor assault and battery, and two felony counts of assaulting or obstructing a police officer and a medical first responder. At trial, Paramedic Johnson and the three officers testified for the prosecution. Mr. Richards testified in his own defense, under oath and threat of perjury, and was subject to cross examination. The jury acquitted Mr. Richards of all charges, which suggests that they believed Mr. Richards or disbelieved the officers, or, at a minimum, that they did not believe the officers beyond a reasonable doubt.

Mr. Richards did file a § 1983 suit in the federal district court and Officer Berent, alone, moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion, which lead to this decision by the Sixth Circuit which held [I]t is disputed whether the officers in Richards’s situation failed to issue any verbal commands before using strong physical force to subdue him … Our “prior opinions clearly establish that it is unreasonable to use significant force on a restrained subject, even if some level of passive resistance is presented.”.  Richards v. County of Wastenaw, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 19896 (6th Cir.)

Lessons Learned:

  1. The most significant takeaway is that law enforcement must always tell a suspect the he is under arrest prior to using force unless it is the most critical of circumstances. In this case the officers would have had to time to tell Mr. Richards he was under arrest. However, as the holding indicates it is disputed whether the officers actually did give a verbal warning.  Keep in mind that this was an appeal of a Summary Judgment, so the case is being sent to the District [lower] Court for a full trial.  No actual finding of wrongdoing was determined by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  1. Force must always be proportionate to the level of resistance. The court in this case believed that there was disproportionate force or at least enough disputed facts to have the case tried at the lower court.

I will remain attentive and provide information concerning the outcome of the case at the lower court.  There is a chance that the County of Wastenaw may settle this case out of court.

Evidently the University of Michigan did not need Mr. Richards in the stands for support as they did beat the University of Wisconsin 14-7.

Information for this article was obtained from Richards v. County of Wastenaw, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 19896 (6th Cir.) and the University of Michigan football website.

Does your agency train on the Use of Force?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.