Molina v. Collin County, Texas et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER - It is therefore ORDERED that Defendant Deputy Langwell's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 30 ) is hereby DENIED IN PART and GRANTED IN PART. Accordingly, the Court denies Deputy Langwell's motion as it relates to qualified immunity, but grants it as to Molina's claims for punitive damages. Signed by District Judge Amos L. Mazzant, III on 11/14/2017. (baf, )
United States District Court
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
GUILLERMO MURILLO MOLINA
COLLIN COUNTY, TEXAS; ROBERT
Civil Action No. 4:17-CV-00017
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Pending before the Court is Defendant Deputy Langwell’s Motion for Summary Judgment
(Dkt. #30). After reviewing the relevant pleadings and motion, the Court finds the motion should
be denied in part and granted in part.
This is an excessive force case arising from a dog bite Plaintiff Guillermo Murillo Molina
(“Molina”) sustained from a Collin County police canine under the control of Deputy Robert
Langwell (“Deputy Langwell”). As a result of the incident, Plaintiff alleges Defendants Collin
County and Deputy Langwell violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Defendant Collin County violated
the Texas Tort Claims Act.
On January 6, 2015, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Molina and an alleged accomplice were
walking in a neighborhood when a police officer, Officer Juan Flores (“Officer Flores”), flashed
his lights. Upon seeing the officer, Molina and the accomplice ran. While the accomplice
continued to run, Molina hid under bushes outside a nearby house. As a result of the two
individuals’ running, Officer Flores called for backup. Subsequently, Deputy Langwell and his
police canine Elo arrived on the scene. Upon arriving, Officer Flores, Deputy Langwell, and Elo
started searching for Molina. As they approached Molina’s hiding spot the bite apprehension
occurred. It is at this point the stories deviate. Deputy Langwell contends Elo bit Molina as he
lay motionless, facedown, and beneath the bushes. Conversely, Molina claims after he heard the
dog nearby he decided to surrender and started to stand up and climb over the bush he used to hide
himself. Molina alleges that as he swung his leg over the bush Elo attacked him, biting him and
thrashing about with Molina’s leg in his mouth. In the course of Elo’s biting of Molina, the two
tumbled down the incline of the lawn. Molina asserts that although Deputy Langwell pulled Elo’s
leash, he never issued any commands to Elo or made any other efforts to remove Elo from Molina’s
leg. According to Molina, Elo maintained his bite for approximately fifteen to thirty seconds
before finally releasing Molina.
As a result of the underlying facts, on January 6, 2017, Molina initiated this suit against
Defendants (Dkt. #1). On August 18, 2017, Deputy Langwell filed his Motion for Summary
Judgment (Dkt. #30). Subsequently, Molina filed his response (Dkt. #37) on September 15, 2017.
Deputy Langwell, on September 28, 2017, filed his reply (Dkt. #42), and on October 5, 2017,
Molina filed his sur-reply (Dkt. #52).
The purpose of summary judgment is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims
or defenses. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323–24 (1986). Summary judgment is proper
under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “if the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine when “the evidence is such that
a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. The trial court
“must resolve all reasonable doubts in favor of the party opposing the motion for summary
judgment.” Casey Enters., Inc. v. Am. Hardware Mut. Ins. Co., 655 F.2d 598, 602 (5th Cir. 1981).
Normally, the movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a material
fact issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. But a “good-faith assertion of qualified immunity alters
the usual summary judgment burden of proof, shifting it to the plaintiff to show that the defense is
not available.” Cass v. City of Abilene, 814 F.3d 721, 728 (5th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation
omitted). To satisfy this burden, the plaintiff must “identify specific evidence in the summary
judgment record demonstrating that there is a material fact issue concerning the essential elements
of its case for which it will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Forsyth v. Barr, 19 F.3d 1527, 1533
(5th Cir. 1994).
“Conclusory allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inference,
unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation are all insufficient to overcome
immunity.” Orr v. Copeland, 844 F.3d 484, 490 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Reyes v. Hornbeck
Offshore Servs., L.L.C., 383 F. App’x 442, 443–44 (5th Cir. 2010)). However, “where a factual
dispute exist, [the Court] accept[s] the plaintiff’s versions.” Cooper v. Brown, 844 F.3d 517, 522
(5th Cir. 2016).
Deputy Langwell argues summary judgment is proper because he is entitled to qualified
immunity. Further, Deputy Langwell claims Molina is prohibited from recovering punitive
damages. The Court addresses each argument in turn.
“Qualified immunity provides government officials with immunity from suit insofar as
their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a
reasonable person would have known.”
Cooper, 844 F.3d at 522 (citations omitted).
determining whether qualified immunity applies, the Court conducts a two-part test: “(1) whether
the plaintiff has alleged a violation of an actual constitutional right; and (2) if so, whether the right
was clearly established at the time of the violation.” Id. “Both questions are matters of law.” Id.
(citing Brothers v. Zoss, 837 F.3d 513, 517 & n.8 (5th Cir. 2016)).
a. Violation of an Actual Constitutional Right
Molina alleges Deputy Langwell violated his Fourth Amendment rights by applying
excessive force. To prevail on an excessive-force claim, Molina must show “(1) injury, (2) which
resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the excessiveness
of which was clearly unreasonable.” Id. (quoting Elizondo v. Green, 671 F.3d 506, 510 (5th Cir.
Here, neither party disagrees that Molina suffered an injury. Instead, Deputy Langwell
contends his application of force was objectively reasonable. As such, the Court must determine
whether Deputy Langwell acted in an objectively reasonable manner in his application of force.
In excessive-force claims, the reasonableness of an officer’s conduct depends on “the facts
and circumstances of each particular case.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989).
Specifically, the Court takes into consideration three factors—the Graham Factors—which
include: (1) the severity of the crime at issue; (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to
the safety of the officers or others; and (3) whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to
evade arrest by flight. Id. The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force “must be judged from
the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Id. As such, the Court’s inquiry is “whether the officer[’s] actions [we]re ‘objectively reasonable’
in light of the facts and circumstances confronting [him], without regard to [his] underlying intent
or motivation.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at 522 (alterations in original) (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at
i. Severity of the Crime
Deputy Langwell asserts case law in the Fifth Circuit clearly establishes that fleeing from
a misdemeanor is a serious crime, which satisfies the first Graham factor. The Court disagrees.
Deputy Langwell cites to Cooper v. Brown to support his proposition. In Cooper, the Fifth
Circuit, in addressing the first Graham factor, stated that “DUI [driving under the influence] is a
serious offense . . . so that factor favors [Officer] Brown.”1 The Court finds such language does
not equate to Deputy Langwell’s broad assertion that Fifth Circuit case law clearly establishes that
fleeing from a misdemeanor is a serious crime. Instead, the Court finds the Fifth Circuit’s language
defines driving under the influence as a serious offense, not the act of fleeing from a misdemeanor.
Focusing on the case at hand, the facts do not support the finding that the case involved a
serious offense. On the night in question, neither Officer Flores nor Deputy Langwell witnessed
Molina commit a crime. Instead, they pursued Molina only on the assumption that he broke into
motor vehicles earlier that morning. In fact, upon Deputy Langwell’s arrival on the scene, Officer
Flores described Molina as a burglary of motor vehicle suspect (Dkt. #30, Exhibit 4 at p. 17).
Because the Court limits its scope to the facts and circumstances that confronted the officers on
the scene, the Court fails to find the existence of a criminal offense. Although Molina later
admitted to breaking into two vehicles, such information is irrelevant for the Court’s analysis since
In describing driving under the influence as a serious crime, the Fifth Circuit cited to Brothers v. Zoss, 837 F.3d 513,
519 (5th Cir. 2016). In Brothers, the Fifth Circuit held “driving while intoxicated and interfering with the duties of a
public servant” are serious crimes. However, the Court’s characterization did not include fleeing from such crimes.
those facts were unknown to the officers when they searched for and apprehended Molina. 2 As
such, without the existence of a criminal offense, this factor favors Molina.
ii. Immediate Threat to Safety of Officer or Others
Deputy Langwell claims Molina posed an immediate threat to the safety of the responding
police officers. The Court is unpersuaded.
To support his argument, Deputy Langwell cites to Edwards v. Shanley, 666 F.3d 1289,
1295 (11th Cir. 2012). While case law from other circuits is persuasive, it is not binding. As such,
the Court relies on Fifth Circuit precedent to guide its analysis.
In Cooper, Officer Pressgrove pulled over Cooper on suspicion of driving under the
influence. Cooper, 844 F.3d at 521. After Officer Pressgrove administered a portable breath test,
he returned to his patrol vehicle. Id. “Cooper panicked and fled on foot into a residential
neighborhood” and hid inside a “small wood-fenced” area. Id. When Cooper fled, Officer
Pressgrove did not know whether Cooper was armed. Id. In the Fifth’s Circuit analysis addressing
the second Graham factor, it found Cooper did not pose an immediate threat to the responding
officers or others. Id. at 522–23. Specifically, the Fifth Circuit found that Cooper’s fleeing the
scene, while potentially intoxicated, into a nearby neighborhood did not present a situation where
Cooper posed an immediate threat. Id. Further, although Officer Brown argued “the fact that
Cooper was unsearched made Cooper more of a threat,” the Fifth Circuit did not agree. Id. at 523
n.2. Instead, the Court held that “although this will sometimes be a relevant fact—for example,
where a plaintiff is suspected of committing a violent crime—it is not enough, standing alone, to
permit a reasonable officer to characterize a suspect as an immediate threat.” Id.
See Calton v. City of Garland, No. 3:02-CV-2215, 2004 WL 2965005, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 10, 2004) (holding the
Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff committed a severe crime of attempted murder misplaced since the officers were
unaware of such facts when on the scene, but instead only knew that Plaintiff had committed a misdemeanor traffic
Here, Molina ran into a neighborhood and hid under bushes in the front of a house when
he noticed a police officer. Officer Flores did not know whether Molina was armed. Comparing
these facts with Cooper, the Court finds a reasonable officer could not conclude that Molina posed
an immediate threat to responding officers. As explained above, neither Officer Flores nor Deputy
Langwell witnessed Molina commit a crime or had reason to believe he was armed. Further,
Molina did not flee from a criminal scene or run away from a police officer who had detained him
or pulled him over. Deputy Langwell points out the fact that Molina had a knife in his backpack
and therefore was armed. However, Deputy Langwell makes this argument with the benefit of
hindsight. Neither Officer Flores nor Deputy Langwell knew that Molina was in fact armed or had
reason to believe so (Dkt. #37, Exhibit 2 at pp. 3–5; Dkt. #30, Exhibit 4 at p. 24). Moreover, the
mere possibility that an individual, here a suspect of a non-violent crime, might be armed, standing
alone, is insufficient “to permit a reasonable officer to characterize a suspect as an immediate
threat.” See Cooper, 844 F.3d at 532 n.2.
Taking into consideration the facts and circumstances surrounding the morning in question,
the Court finds no reasonable officer could conclude that Molina posed an immediate threat to the
responding officers. As such, this factor favors Molina.
iii. Actively Resisting Arrest or Attempting to Evade Arrest by Flight
Deputy Langwell claims in running away and hiding, Molina actively attempted to evade
arrest. The Court disagrees.
In making this argument, Deputy Langwell focuses on his inability to perceive Molina
surrendering and his lack of knowledge on where Molina hid. However, according to Molina, as
Officer Flores, Deputy Langwell, and Elo approached him he surrendered by rising up from the
ground and stepping over the bushes. As Molina swung his leg over the bush, Molina claims Elo
attacked him, which resulted in both Molina and Elo tumbling down the front lawn. Once Elo
took ahold of Molina, Molina claims he never tried to run away from, kick, punch, or yell at Elo.
Instead, Molina asserts he screamed and begged for someone to release the dog from biting his leg
(Dkt. #37, Exhibit 1 at p. 27). Instead of commanding Elo to release Molina’s leg, Molina claims
Deputy Langwell continued to pull Elo, which resulted in Elo pulling Molina’s leg in addition to
Elo shaking his head from side to side. In other words, Deputy Langwell pulled Elo, and Elo
pulled Molina’s leg. It “was just back and forth.” (Dkt. #37, Exhibit 1 at p. 27).3
The parties dispute the length of time between Elo’s biting and releasing Molina, but
according to Molina approximately fifteen to thirty seconds passed. Deputy Langwell argues he
acted reasonably because he “remove[d] [Elo] once it bec[a]me clear that the suspect no longer
pose[d] an immediate threat of harm and [was] not actively resisting or evading arrest.” (Dkt. #30
at p. 28). As explained above, Molina did not attempt to resist or evade arrest, but instead was in
the process of surrendering. As such, the amount of time, whether fifteen seconds or thirty
seconds, should have been avoided altogether. A surrendering suspect need not be exposed to a
canine attack while attempting to surrender. Further, once Elo engaged Molina, Deputy Langwell
failed to issue a verbal command for Elo to release. Instead, he continued to pull on Elo who, by
virtue of having ahold of Molina’s leg, pulled on Molina. Accordingly, the failure to immediately
command a dog to release a surrendering criminal suspect who does not pose a threat is objectively
While the Court recognizes these facts are contested, “where factual disputes exist, [the Court] accept[s] the
plaintiff’s version.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at 522.
Even if Elo attacked of its own volition, Deputy Langwell permitted the attack to continue for fifteen to thirty
Based on these facts, the Court fails to find Molina actively resisted arrest or attempted to
evade arrest by flight. Instead, Molina attempted to surrender and, in the process, suffered a dog
attack. Accordingly, this factor favors Molina.
Therefore, because all three Graham factors weigh in favor of Molina, the Court finds
Deputy Langwell’s actions objectively unreasonable.5
b. Clearly Established Right at the Time of the Violation
The second question the Court must address in the qualified immunity analysis is “whether
the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at 522. “To answer
that question in the affirmative, [the Court] must be able to point to controlling authority—or a
robust consensus of persuasive authority—that defines the contours of the right in question with a
high degree of particularity.” Id. at 524 (quoting Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 371–72 (5th
Cir. 2011) (en banc)). But “this does not mean that ‘a case directly on point’ is required.” Id.
(quoting Morgan, 659 F.3d at 372). Rather, “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or
constitutional question beyond debate.” Id. (quoting Morgan, 659 F.3d at 372 (emphasis in
“The central concept is ‘fair warning.’” Id. (citing Morgan, 659 F.3d at 372; Newman v.
Guedry, 703 F.3d 757, 763 (5th Cir. 2012)). “The law can be clearly established despite notable
factual distinctions between the Court, so long as the prior decisions gave reasonable warning that
the conduct then at issue violated constitutional rights.” Id. (quoting Newman, 703 F.3d at 763).
“Furthermore, ‘in an obvious case,’ the Graham excessive-force factors themselves ‘can clearly
establish the answer, even without a body of relevant case law.’” Id. (quoting Newman, 703 F.3d
The Court makes such a determination resolving all doubts in favor of Molina.
Fifth Circuit case law clearly establishes that “once an arrestee stops resisting, the degree
of force an officer can employ is reduced.” Id. “[A]lthough the right to make an arrest necessarily
carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it, the
permissible degree of force depends on [the Graham factors].” Id. at 524–25 (quoting Bush v.
Strain, 513 F.3d 492, 502 (5th Cir. 2008) (alteration in original)). In Bush, the Fifth Circuit held
an officer who slammed an arrestee’s face into a nearby vehicle while the arrestee was not resisting
arrest or attempting to flee was objectively unreasonable. Bush, 513 F.3d at 502. Further, in
Newman, the Fifth Circuit ruled tasing an unarmed arrestee who the police officers did not believe
to be armed objectively unreasonable. Newman, 703 F.3d at 762.6 Comparatively, in Cooper, the
Fifth Circuit held the arresting officer acted objectively unreasonable when he allowed the canine
to attack an arrestee who did not attempt to resist arrest or flee, and who the officer had no reason
to believe posed an immediate threat. Cooper, 844 F.3d at 525.
Here, resolving all doubts in favor of Molina, Molina did not attempt to resist arrest or flee,
but instead made an effort to surrender.7 Moreover, Deputy Langwell did not have any reason to
believe Molina, the suspect of a non-violent misdemeanor, posed an immediate threat.
Accordingly, Deputy Langwell had “fair warning” that subjecting a suspect and non-threatening
arrestee to a dog attack was objectively unreasonable. See Id. at n.8.
Therefore, the Court finds Molina’s right was clearly established. Moreover, because both
questions in the Court’s qualified immunity analysis favor Molina, the Court finds Deputy
Langwell is not entitled to qualified immunity.
“The fact that Bush and Newman are not dog-bite cases does not shield [Deputy Langwell]. Lawfulness of force . . .
does not depend on the precise instrument used to apply it. Qualified immunity will not protect officers who apply
excessive force and unreasonable force merely because their means of applying it are novel.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at
525 (internal quotations omitted) (citations omitted).
While the Court recognizes these facts are contested, “where factual disputes exist, [the Court] accept[s] the
plaintiff’s version.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at 522.
“A jury may award punitive damages in a § 1983 action when an official’s conduct is
motivated by evil intent or demonstrates reckless or callous indifference to a person’s
constitutional rights.” Cowart v. Erwin, 837 F.3d 444, 455 (5th Cir. 2016) (internal quotations
omitted) (citations omitted); accord Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983).
Here, the Court fails to find any evidence supporting the contention that Deputy Langwell
acted with evil intent or reckless or callous indifference to Molina’s constitutional rights. Further,
Molina abandoned his claim for punitive damages when he failed to respond to Deputy Langwell’s
argument that the lack of evidence precludes such an award. As a result, the Court finds Molina’s
claim for punitive damages fails as a matter of law.
It is therefore ORDERED that Defendant Deputy Langwell’s Motion for Summary
Judgment (Dkt. #30) is hereby DENIED IN PART and GRANTED IN PART.
Accordingly, the Court denies Deputy Langwell’s motion as it relates to qualified
immunity, but grants it as to Molina’s claims for punitive damages.
SIGNED this 14th day of November, 2017.
AMOS L. MAZZANT
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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