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Ames v. King County, Washington

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

January 13, 2017

Tonja Ames, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
King County, Washington, Defendant, and Heather R. Volpe, member of the King County Sheriff's Department; Christopher Sawtelle, member of the King County Sheriff's Department; Daniel L. Christian, member of the King County Sheriff's Department, Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued and Submitted December 7, 2016 Seattle, Washington

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington Ricardo S. Martinez, Chief Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:13-cv-01030-RSM

          David J. Hackett (argued), Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney; Daniel T. Satterberg, Prosecuting Attorney; King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Seattle, Washington; for Defendants-Appellants.

          Darryl Parker (argued), Civil Rights Justice Center PLLC, Seattle, Washington, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: M. Margaret McKeown, Richard C. Tallman, and Morgan B. Christen, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [*]

         Civil Rights

         The panel reversed the district court's denial, on summary judgment, of qualified immunity to King County Sheriff's Deputies in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in which plaintiff alleged, among other things, that deputies violated her Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force during an arrest and unlawfully searching her truck.

         The panel held that the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity because their actions were objectively reasonable in light of the urgent need to deliver life-saving care to an overdose victim, and to ensure the safety of everyone at the scene.

          OPINION

          TALLMAN, Circuit Judge

         This interlocutory appeal requires us to address the reasonableness of actions taken by King County Sheriff's Deputies functioning in their community caretaking capacities during a life-and-death medical emergency. We reverse the district court's denial of qualified immunity on Appellee's excessive force and unlawful search claims because we conclude the deputies' actions were objectively reasonable in light of the urgent need to deliver life-saving care to an overdose victim, and to ensure the safety of everyone at the scene.

         I

         The events leading up to the use of force and search at issue in this case are largely undisputed.[1] On February 6, 2013, at 6:30 p.m., Tonja Ames called 911 to summon an ambulance for her 22-year-old son, Colin Briganti. Briganti lived in a converted garage apartment attached to his mother's home and suffered from heart and lung problems as a result of prior drug abuse. Upon arriving home from work that day, Ames found Briganti in his bedroom "slumped over on the couch drooling" and incoherent. She also found what appeared to be a suicide note and feared Briganti may have overdosed on one of his medications. Ames called her neighbors, William and Linda Eby, who came over to help.

         The 911 operator classified the call as a Priority 1 suicide attempt and dispatched a firefighter/EMT aid crew and a police officer to Ames's residence. According to the County, it is common practice for police officers to respond to attempted suicide calls in order to secure the scene and ensure the safety of the aid crew. King County Sheriff's Deputy Heather Volpe, who is an expert instructor in drug recognition, arrived at Ames's house within approximately four minutes of Ames's 911 call, pulling up at virtually the same time as an aid car from Woodinville Fire and Rescue. The aid car was manned by Lieutenant Drago Nevistic and Firefighter/EMTs Chris Mezzone and Larry Laurent. Ames met Deputy Volpe and the aid crew in her driveway by the front right corner of the house and told them about Briganti's medical history, his current condition, and the suicide note. Ames then directed Deputy Volpe and the aid crew around to the garage apartment entrance at the back of the house. Firefighter/EMTs Mezzone and Laurent were in the lead and entered the apartment, with Ames, Deputy Volpe, and Lieutenant Nevistic following behind.

         As Ames, Deputy Volpe, and Lieutenant Nevistic arrived at the doorway, Ames refused entry to Deputy Volpe. Ames told Deputy Volpe that only the aid crew could enter the apartment. According to Ames, Deputy Volpe replied, "If I can't enter the home, then you get no service, " and directed the aid crew to exit the apartment. Firefighter/EMTs Mezzone and Laurent withdrew from the apartment; they had not yet engaged with Briganti but Laurent had observed that he was sitting in a chair, "semi-conscious" and "lethargic, " and that he "barely could keep his eyes open."

         Neither Deputy Volpe nor any member of the aid crew had ever encountered a situation where the person who called 911 would not allow police to enter with the emergency medical personnel responding to the call. Because Ames's refusal was unusual, and because the call involved a possible suicide attempt, Deputy Volpe became concerned for the safety of the responders on the scene and what might have happened inside the apartment. Together, Deputy Volpe and the aid crew retreated to their vehicles parked at the curb. Deputy Volpe radioed to inform dispatch and her patrol supervisor, Sergeant Kevin Johannes, that Ames was refusing to let police enter and the aid crew was refusing to work on Briganti inside the apartment. Deputy Volpe requested backup and waited, further advising dispatch that Briganti had overdosed on pills and was semi-conscious and very lethargic. Deputy Volpe had specialized training as a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor with knowledge of various medications and their effects. She was concerned that Briganti would die. Ames had listed Briganti's medications for Deputy Volpe when the aid crew first arrived, and Deputy Volpe recognized most of them as Central Nervous System depressants.

         Before leaving Briganti's apartment, the aid crew did not tell Ames that they could treat her son outside the apartment or that they would wait outside for him. When the first responders withdrew, Ames and her neighbors had remained in Briganti's apartment. Ames panicked—thinking the aid crew was going to leave—and enlisted her neighbors to help her carry Briganti outside and load him into her pickup truck parked in the driveway so she could drive him to the nearest hospital. Deputy Volpe watched as Ames and her neighbors carried Briganti, apparently unconscious, out from behind the house. She assumed Ames would now let the aid crew work on Briganti in the driveway but, once she observed their efforts to load Briganti into Ames's truck, Deputy Volpe radioed her patrol supervisor: "Looks like they're trying to load him up into a truck and leave. . . . Should I stop them[?]" Sergeant Johannes replied: "Yeah, if you have aid there they need to work on him. So, yeah." Deputy Volpe then moved her patrol car to block the truck's ...


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