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Summary Judgment Reversed in Puerto Rican Arrestee’s Wrongful Death Suit

In February 2016, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment to Puerto Rico police officers in a civil rights action alleging they used excessive force against an arrestee and denied him medical care.

The lawsuit stemmed from an April 10, 2007 traffic stop after Christopher Rojas Miranda (Rojas) was observed “driving at a high speed, running stoplights, and swerving.” At the direction of officers William Perez Ortiz (Perez) and Orlando Rivera Lugardo (Rivera), Rojas exited his car and put his hands on the trunk.

When Perez asked Rojas if he was OK, Rojas began screaming that a car was following him and someone was trying to kill him. A scuffle ensued, and after Rojas was restrained with handcuffs, force was applied when he resisted being placed in the patrol car.

Once in the car, “Rojas looked nervous, sweaty, pale, wild-eyed, had veins bulging at his temple, a purplish tint to his forehead, temples and cheeks, and blackish lips.” His only apparent injury was a cut lip.

Sgt. Miguel Rodriguez Crespi (Rodriguez) arrived on the scene and suggested that Rojas be taken to a medical facility. However, Rivera thought Rojas might be a danger to others, so he was instead transported to the police station.

At the station, force was again used to get Rojas into a cell. The cell door was closed and Rojas yelled incoherently. Rodriguez ordered that paramedics be called. When they arrived less than 15 minutes later, Rojas was unresponsive.

His body was found with blood coming from his mouth; multiple lacerations, contusions and abrasions on his face, chin, shoulders, wrist and legs; and a subarachnoid hemorrhage in his brain, among other injuries.

The First Circuit found the excessive force claim was properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment due to Rojas’ status as an arrestee, and held there were genuine issues of fact in dispute.

The defendants could be liable for excessive force even if Rojas had not died, and a jury could conclude the physical trauma resulted from excessive force while transporting him to the holding cell. Thus, summary judgment was improperly entered for Perez. Rodriguez could be found liable for failing to intervene to stop the use of force when Rojas was put in the cell, if a jury found the force was excessive.

Finally, Perez and Rodriguez could be liable for denying Rojas medical care, as his condition may have been “so obvious that even a layperson would have easily recognized it.”

The district court’s order was reversed; following remand, the case settled in August 2016. See: Miranda-Rivera v. Toledo-Davila, 813 F.3d 64 (1st Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Miranda-Rivera v. Toledo-Davila