Use of Deadly Force Against Suicidal Teen Was 'Reasonable'

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 15, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment in favor of a Texas city this week, finding that a police officer's use of deadly force against an armed, suicidal teenager did not amount to excessive force.

The facts in the case were undisputed. Alicia Elizondo awoke to hear her 17-year-old son, Ruddy, crying. She went to check on him and found him holding a knife to his abdomen. Ruddy had attempted suicide by stabbing himself just over a month earlier. Alicia began to cry and plead with Ruddy, and tried to take the knife away. The commotion woke Ruddy's sister, who called 911 because she was afraid Ruddy might hurt their mother.

Officer W.M. Green was on patrol nearby, when he received a dispatch that a man had stabbed himself and needed medical attention. (The dispatcher mistakenly informed Green that Ruddy had already stabbed himself and the knife was still lodged in his abdomen.) When Green arrived at the house to clear and secure the scene for the paramedics, he found Ruddy unhurt and still holding the knife to his stomach.

Green drew his weapon, backed out of Ruddy's room, and repeatedly ordered him to put down the knife. Ruddy continued to approach Green with the knife, and yelled at Green to shoot him. When Ruddy raised the knife in a threatening manner, Green fired his gun three times, hitting Ruddy. Green immediately called in the paramedics, who had been waiting outside, but Ruddy died from his wounds.

The Elizondos filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Garland, alleging that Officer Green used excessive force against Ruddy. The district court granted the city's motion for summary judgment, finding Green's use of deadly force was not clearly unreasonable.

Ruddy ignored repeated instructions to put down the knife he was holding and seemed intent on provoking Green. At the time Green discharged his weapon, Ruddy was hostile, armed with a knife, in close proximity to Green, and moving closer. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that it was reasonable for Green to conclude that Ruddy posed a threat of serious harm.

Fifth Circuit Judge Harold R. DeMoss wrote a special concurrence in this case, noting that this is the second time in two months that the circuit has reviewed an excessive force complaint against the City of Garland after police officers fatally wounded a suicidal person. DeMoss notes that in both cases, "It was the officers' job to prevent violence or suicide, yet they quickly escalated the situation to the point where they were legally justified to use deadly force against a mentally ill person who obviously needed help," and suggests that better training is needed.

Do you agree? While Garland has dodged liability based on its officers' reasonable reactions, should the city re-examine police officer training?

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