Two of six Harrison County Sheriff’s officers listed as co-defendants in a civil lawsuit, stemming from an alleged official oppression incident, have been granted immunity in the case.
The officers, listed as “bystanders,” who were granted immunity were Cruz Vences and Clint Mathers.
Presiding U.S. Magistrate Judge Roy Payne ruled last Thursday that the other four — Charles “Chase” Dotson, Ryan Roop, Caleb Oden and Jonathan Smith — were not entitled to immunity.
Attorney Josh Maness, who is representing the plaintiff Charles Edward Collins in the case, said they respect the judge’s decision.
“We will proceed to trial against Dotson, Roop, Oden and Smith,” Maness said. “We respect the judge’s thorough opinion and look forward to trying our case so that this never happens again to another citizen.”
In the case, Collins, a 62-year-old oilfield consultant, alleges that Charles ‘Chase’ Dotson unconstitutionally arrested him and used excessive force during the arrest — and that the five other officers present at the scene did not intervene and thus are liable under a theory of bystander liability.
The Waskom resident filed an official oppression complaint in November 2018 against then-Harrison County Sheriff’s deputy Dotson and subsequently followed it up with the civil lawsuit to compensate for his pain and suffering. He later amended the complaint, suing the additional officers individually for allegedly acting as “bystanders.”
The co-defendants are accused of standing by watching a restrained Collins get brutally attacked by Dotson for no reasonable cause.
In response, the defendants each filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.
“After conducting a hearing on the issues, the Court concludes, for the reasons set forth herein, that the motions by Dotson, Roop, Oden, Smith, and Collins are denied,” the memorandum order, filed Nov. 7, states. “The motions by Vences and Mathers are granted.”
The reported misconduct took place on Nov. 22, 2018, in the wee hours of Thanksgiving Day, after a complainant called authorities and asked for assistance at Collins’ residence that he shared with his fiancé, near Waskom.
The fiance’s daughter had called 911 dispatchers after receiving a frantic call from her mother that Collins was drunk and destroying everything. The daughter later reported that everything was fine and they no longer needed assistance.
Officers were dispatched to the home anyway to assess the complaint. Upon arrival, officers observed the home in disarray.
Collins claimed he had made the mess out of anger. He told officers he had been at his fiance’s bar, drinking about 10 beers, and had taken his prescribed medication.
When asked what happened, Collins “emphatically and repeatedly stated two things. First, that he did not lay hands on anyone and second, that everything was his, including the house and all the items in it,” the memorandum states.
“Collins believed this meant that he had not committed a crime, which the officers confirmed to him,” it continued.
The memorandum goes on to note that Collins advised he planned to go to bed. At some point, body cam footage shows Collins stating he could destroy his own house if he wanted — in which Dotson answered “you’re absolutely right.”
Collins went on to state that if they want to arrest him, he’ll sue them, body cam footage shows. Dotson advised him they wouldn’t arrest him for anything besides public intoxication at that point. Collins questioned the offense since he was in his own home.
The judge’s memorandum notes that after more banter towards the officers, Dotson ended up arresting Collins for disorderly conduct, interfering with public duties and resisting arrest. Ultimately, only the disorderly conduct charge stuck, to which he pleaded not guilty.
The disorderly conduct charge ended up being dismissed by the court, however, “in the interest of justice.” The county also refunded Collins’ fine that he had already paid.
The judge’s memorandum notes that the arrest came after Collins joked that the officers were chickens.
“Dotson, apparently unamused by the comment, immediately arrested and handcuffed Collins,” the memorandum states.
The in-car camera, on the way to the jail, shows Collins with his hands handcuffed behind his back, in the backseat, talking and banging his head against the divider. Dotson called the jail annex to inform that he would be needing assistance for a “violent” subject.
The memorandum goes on to say that Collins called Dotson a “big boy” and stated that “If y’all think you fixing to whoop my (expletive) you wrong. I’m ready when you are…”
The memorandum goes on to say when Dotson opens the door for Collins to be placed in the restraint chair, Collins shouts “Wait a minute! Let me stick my feet out!”
Nevertheless, “the officers disregarded Collins’ pleading,” the judge noted.
“Oden and Roop grabbed the still-handcuffed Collins and dragged him out of the car head first,” the judge noted. “Smith then grabbed Collins’ right arm, Oden held Collins’ left arm, and Roop kept Collins’ head down. Dotson grasped Collins’ right shoulder. Mathers and Vences watched from just behind the others. As Collins was dragged backwards to the restraint chair, he tried to say something. As the words started to leave his mouth, Dotson began to punch him in the head. Three punches in, Roop let go of Collins and said, ‘Get the f… in that chair.’ As the jailers sat Collins in the restraint chair, Dotson delivered five more even harder blows to Collins’ head. None of the other police officers did anything to intervene. In the end, Dotson, over the course of around five seconds, hit Collins eight times in his head.”
Two jailers, who are not defendants in the case but witnessed the Sally Port scene provided statements about its aftermath, describing how Collins was bleeding and swollen. As a result, Collins was transported to the hospital to treat his injures.
In response to Collins’ false arrest claims, the memorandum notes that Dotson argues that he had probable cause to believe that Collins had committed the offenses of: interference with public duties; disorderly conduct; public intoxication; criminal mischief; and reckless damage or destruction.
Dotson alleged that Collins committed interference with public duties when he shouted at Deputy Roop as Roop watched Collins’ fiance’s daughter collect clothes from the bedroom.
“When viewing the evidence, specifically Vences’ bodycam video, in the light most favorable to Collins, the Court finds that Collins, at most, verbally argued with Roop,” Judge Payne said. “Further, he was walking to his seat when Vences instructed him to sit and accordingly, followed Vences’ instructions to sit, albeit slowly. Thus, a reasonable jury could find that probable cause did not exist and that an officer could not reasonably conclude that probable cause existed.”
Regarding the disorderly and public intoxication claim, in Texas these Class C misdemeanors require the charged conduct occur in a public place, the judge noted.
Regarding the criminal mischief and reckless damage or destruction claims, the judge noted that in Texas, the offenses are only applicable if the person does not have the effective consent of the owner. The judge noted that the video evidence shows that Collins loudly and repeatedly told the officers that he owned the house and the items within.
Regarding the excessive force claim, Collins alleges that Dotson used excessive force by repeatedly punching him in the face and head in the Sally Port of the jail annex.
The judge noted that Dotson admits that the videos of the Sally Port are “at best — difficult to watch” yet argues that police officers are given “broad deference” to make split-second decisions and therefore, his use of force was not “beyond debate.”
Payne noted that it is undisputed that Collins suffered severe injuries, which required immediate hospitalization. He noted that Dotson claims he did this because he perceived Collins trying to bite another officer.
“As an initial matter, Dotson’s claim that Collins was trying to bite someone is unsupported by the multiple recordings of that night,” the judge said. “For argument’s sake, even if Dotson correctly perceived Collins trying to bite an officer, his behavior was disproportionate. While the Court need not determine whether any use of force would have been reasonable, eight blows is clearly excessive.”
“Second, taking the facts in the light most favorable to Collins, no reasonable officer could conclude that Collins posed a threat to Dotson or the other officers,” the judge said. “The video evidence shows the barefoot and unarmed Collins handcuffed, with his arms behind his back. Further, while Collins had made some outlandish statements, he never once attempted to physically engage someone that evening. Even his statements about being ‘ready’ as they were entering the Sallyport were made in context with his expressed belief that the officers planned to beat him. While it can be argued that Collins was resisting, it was at most a passive resistance since he was pulled out of the car head first and did not have his feet underneath him.”
“Further, the length of time — 5 seconds — and number of strikes — eight—show this was not a split-second decision, as Dotson argues. Dotson had the time and ability to realize the immorality of his actions, especially when he paused after the first three strikes,” the judge added. “Even the bystander defendants all agree that Dotson’s use of force was objectively unreasonable.”
Regarding the bystander defendants, while the bystander defendants all agree that Dotson’s use of force was objectively unreasonable, they argue that their inaction in the Sally Port was because “it was impossible for the officers to know what provoked Deputy Dotson’s actions, perceive the events and react to them.”
“Thus, they argue that they did not have a reasonable opportunity to prevent the harm since by the time any of [them] knew what was going on, the entire event was over,” the memorandum states.
The judge noted that Roop argued that that he did not have a reasonable opportunity to prevent the harm since he did not have enough time to register what was happening during the approximately five-second incident.
“The video evidence suggests otherwise,” the judge noted. “ Roop’s bodycam in the Sallyport had a clear angle of Dotson striking Collins. When Dotson first struck Collins, Roop was holding Collins’ head down. That Roop was holding Collins heavily supports the conclusion that he could have intervened and prevented some of the harm. Instead, Roop let go of Collins, covered his bodycam, and walked away, even though Collins was not yet secured in the restraint chair.”
“A reasonable juror could easily conclude that Roop knew Dotson was hitting Collins and walked away — choosing not to act,” Judge Payne opined.
The judge noted that Oden and Smith are in a similar situation to Roop. While the two argue that they were focused on just trying to get Collins into the restraint chair and not on Dotson, the judge said the videos paint a different picture.
“Construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Collins, a reasonable jury could conclude that those few seconds Oden and Smith were watching Dotson strike Collins as they held Collins’ limp body presented a reasonable opportunity for them to intervene,” Judge Payne concluded.
In regard to Vences and Mathers, the judge noted that while they were both present, neither held Collins during the extraction and were both a few feet away from the alleged excessive force incident.
“Mathers claims that he only saw the last three blows. Vences claims he only saw the last blow,” the judge noted. “Those last few blows occurred within the span of a second or two.
“Considering the fact that they were not holding Collins and did not perceive the blows until the attack was almost over, a reasonable jury could not conclude that either Mathers or Vences could have physically intervened in time to prevent the injury,” the judge opined.
A jury trial has been requested in the civil matter.