There Is No Good Outcome To This Case.

In July of 2017, Arlington, Texas Police Corporal Ray, Sergeant Jefferson, and Officers Scott, Elliott, and Guadarrama, responded to a call for made by Gabriel Anthony Olivas, the son of Gabriel Eduardo Olivas. The caller indicated that the father was threatening to harm himself and to burn down the house.

Officer Guadarrama was first on the scene. He began making preparations while awaiting backup. Sergeant Jefferson and Officer Elliott were next to arrive, and the three entered the home.

Upon entering the home, the police smelled gasoline and were pointed toward the back corner bedroom of the house where they encountered Gabriel Eduardo Olivas leaning against the back wall with a red can in his hand.

The with tazers drawn, the officers shined their flashlights on Olivas.

Officer Elliot is said to have shouted that if the police tazed Olivas, he might burst into flames.

Elliot sprayed Olivas with pepper spray, blinding him. Olivas responded by “shouting nonsense” and yelling he was going to burn the place to the ground.

There is lack of clarity as to whether Olivas was already doused in gas, but with what appeared to be a lighter in his hand, Olivas raised the red can and poured gas on himself (again.)

Officer Guadarrama, and soon after Officer Jefferson fired their tazers to prevent Olivas from immolating himself.

Instead, Olivas burst into flames.

The officers managed to get Olivas and everyone else out of the house as the house started to burn down around them.

Olivas was badly burned and three days later succumbed to those burns and died in the hospital.

With Olivas dead and their house in ashes, the family sued the officers involved for use of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.

The officers responded to the suit by claiming “qualified immunity,” which is a legal defense that many people believe needs to be revisited by the Courts.

According to the opinion issued by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in this case:

The qualified immunity analysis has two components: (1) whether a plaintiff alleges or shows the violation of a federal constitutional or statutory right; and (2) whether the right in question was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232. Since Pearson, a reviewing court may tackle these questions in whatever order it deems most expeditious. Id. at 236. The second question, addressing whether a right was “clearly established,” encompasses another question, discussed separately in some of this court’s opinions, about the objective reasonableness of a defendant official’s conduct.

The issue with “qualified immunity” always seems to be the second part of the test, which is whether the right being “violated” is “clearly established.” This has led to some rather interesting cases where officers who have stolen coins in a search were let off because there was no “clearly established” right not to steal during a search. Or a recent case where correction officers were covered under qualified immunity after they put an inmate in solitary confinement in a cell that had no drainage, no working toilet, and feces all over the walls, floor and ceiling. (Sarah McLachlan, the ASPCA and every decent human being knows you can’t treat dogs like that.) However, as there was no clear case stating that the correction officers could not throw the inmate into a cell with those conditions, the officers were fine under “qualified immunity.”

In this case, the Fifth Circuit found that the officers had acted reasonably, and therefore no violation of Olivas’ rights had occurred.

As we started to read about this case, our question became “what were the officers supposed to do in this case?”

The Fifth Circuit had the same thought:

Although the employment of tasers led to a tragic outcome, we cannot suggest exactly what alternative course the defendant officers should have followed that would have led to an outcome free of potential tragedy. We emphasize that the reasonableness of a government official’s use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable official on the scene, not with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. The fact that Olivas appeared to have the capability of setting himself on fire in an instant and, indeed, was threatening to do so, meant that the officers had no apparent options to avoid calamity. If, reviewing the facts in hindsight, it is still not apparent what might have been done differently to achieve a better outcome under these circumstances, then, certainly, we, who are separated from the moment by more than three years, cannot conclude that Guadarrama or Jefferson, in the exigencies of the moment, acted unreasonably.

The Court sent the case back down to the District Court with an order for the lower course to dismiss the case in favor of the officers.

Still, we are left with the feeling that there is no good outcome for this case. No matter what, Olivas will still be dead. The family’s home is a pile of burnt debris. The family is left with the lasting image of Olivas literally being burned alive. The police, for their part will always have the memory of the burning Olivas seared into their brains. They will always wonder what they could have done differently, but we suspect they won’t find any answers.

All we can hope is that now that this strange case is winding down, all of the survivors will find some measure of peace moving forward.

Comments are closed.