LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas State Police officer is partially immune from a civil lawsuit alleging he used excessive force against a man at a Little Rock shopping mall, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis partially reversed and partially upheld a federal judge’s ruling that denied Cpl. Willie Robinson’s claim of immunity from the suit filed by Ricky Tatum.
Robinson was off duty and working as a mall security officer in April 2014 when he arrested Tatum for trying to leave Dillard’s in the Park Plaza mall with eight pairs of shorts he had not purchased. Tatum later pleaded guilty to a felony robbery charge and misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and theft of property.
Tatum also sued the CEO of Dillard’s, the director of law enforcement standards for the Arkansas State Police and Corizon Correctional Healthcare. His claims against Robinson allege that Robinson pepper sprayed him and choked him even though he was not resisting arrest or trying to flee.
A federal judge in Little Rock found that Robinson was not entitled to immunity from the suit because his actions amounted to objectively unreasonable violations of Tatum’s constitutional protection against excessive force.
In its opinion Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit reversed the federal judge’s ruling regarding the use of pepper spray but upheld it regarding Tatum’s choking claim.
The appeals court said Tatum angrily argued with Robinson and was warned by Robinson that he would be pepper-sprayed if he did not calm down, so a reasonable officer in Robinson’s shoes could have believed he was not violating Tatum’s rights by pepper-spraying him.
But the 8th Circuit said Tatum’s choking claim against Robinson can proceed. The appeals court noted that video from a store security camera shows Robinson held an arm around Tatum’s neck after Tatum was in handcuffs.
Court precedents have established that “it violates the Fourth Amendment to choke a suspect who is handcuffed and not resisting,” the court said in an opinion written by Judge Duane Benton.
Robinson has denied choking Tatum with the arm he placed around Tatum’s neck, but the appeals court said the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to Tatum in a determination of whether to dismiss his claims.