The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a claim of excessive force alleged in a federal lawsuit against two Issaquah police officers can go to trial in the case of the death of a 66-year-old man who suffered a broken neck when police detained him during a 2018 domestic dispute.
The three-member appeals court panel said the injuries suffered by Wangsheng Leng at the hands of officers Michael Lucht and Kylen Whittom could give lie to the officers’ claims that they “gently” moved Leng to a couch after handcuffing him.
“That description is contradicted by physical evidence of abrasions along Leng’s extremities and his wife’s description of officers ‘coming toward him in … full force,’” the judges wrote.
The officers had responded to a call of a domestic disturbance at the apartment where Leng and his wife of 40 years, Liping Yang, were living. The couple had immigrated to Issaquah in 2010 from China, and neither of them spoke English, according to court documents. A neighbor had called police on Aug. 5, 2018, to report yelling and sounds of items being thrown.
The officers’ versions of the events differ sharply from that of Yang on several key points. They claimed that when Yang opened the door, Leng was behind her, pulling on her shirt. Yang, in sworn testimony, said her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was in the bedroom and came out and stood behind, but didn’t touch her. She said the officers’ claims that he had grabbed her were “not true,” according to the court file.
The officers contend that as they were attempting to communicate with Yang, the door to the apartment began to close and that’s when Lucht decided to enter the home. Once inside, he claimed that Leng came at him. Yang has disputed that account, claiming that she invited the officers in and that nobody tried to close the door.
Once inside, Yang said the officers grabbed her husband — who she said was “making nonsense noises” — and pulled him toward a couch, where they pushed him face down and attempted to handcuff him, putting their weight on him to hold him down, according to the pleadings.
In their police report, the officers noted that Leng was briefly detained but that he did not assault them and that no injuries resulted from the arrest.
However, Leng was taken to Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah, where he underwent surgery for spinal cord decompression and died on Sept. 5, a month later. An autopsy by the King County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide, stating that Leng had died as a result of complications from a “blunt force injury to the neck,” which “occurred in circumstances involving the use of physical restraint.”
Yang sued in federal court in 2019, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly in December 2020 ordered the case to trial on allegations that the officers made unlawful entry to the home, unlawfully detained Leng, used excessive force in arresting him, committed assault and battery and were negligent.
The officers appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, urging the San Francisco-based appellate court to overturn Zilly’s order and remand the case back to federal court to allow them to remove the state law allegations — assault and battery and negligence. The officers also asked the 9th Circuit judges to reinstate their claim to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that grants government officials immunity from civil lawsuits when they can show they believed they were acting legally.
In a six-page ruling issued in late December, a three-judge appeals panel agreed with the officers that they likely didn’t violate Leng’s constitutional rights by entering the home or by detaining him while they investigated whether a domestic-violence crime had been committed.
However, they ruled there was sufficient evidence that Lucht and Whittom used excessive force, in violation of Leng’s 4th Amendment protections, to send the case to trial.
“The officers do not suggest that they believed Leng to pose any threat to their own safety,” the judges wrote. “Nor do they content he resisted or attempted to flee.”
The officer’s claims that they “gently” moved Leng to the couch “is … inconsistent with the severity of Leng’s injuries, which ultimately caused his death,” the judges concluded.