Police Shooting Case at Supreme Court

Today, the Supreme Court declined to review an appeal in the case of Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston  (scroll down). Of course, the Court declines most appeals and can only review a small fraction of the cases brought to it.  What is noteworthy about this case is the dissent filed by Justice Sotomayor.  She wanted to explain why the Court’s denial was a mistake.

The case involved a police shooting in Houston.  The man, Ricardo Salazar-Limon (SL), survived the shooting and later sued for excessive force.  Unfortunately, his lawsuit was thrown out before there was even a trial.  That was Sotomayor’s objection–the case was improperly decided by a judge before trial when a jury should have heard the controversy.  Salazar-Limon was shot by the police and now the government has tossed away his legal claim of excessive force.  By allowing the lower court ruling to stand uncorrected, the law is now tilting against the victims of police misconduct and puts dangerous power in the hands of police.

Here’s the background: SL was driving on a Houston freeway around midnight.  He had been drinking.  Officer Chris Thompson pulled him over, and asked for his license.  Thompson checked for warrants, but there were none.  SL was asked to exit his vehicle –probably for a sobriety test.  It seems that when Thompson moved to put handcuffs on SL, things escalated fast and their stories diverge.  SL says he started walking away, and that he was shot in the back just seconds after Thompson had called out to him to stop.  Thompson claims that SL responded to his order by turning around and making a motion toward his waistband as if he were about to draw a gun, so Thompson, who had already drawn his weapon, shot SL.   SL had no gun.

As noted, an excessive force claim was filed.  The police officer asked the district judge to resolve the case in his favor prior to trial, arguing that he was immune under the doctrine of qualified immunity.

When the facts are disputed, cases typically go to the jury.  When there is no real factual dispute, a judge might decide the case based on the law.  That’s what happened here, but it remains controversial.  Officer Thompson and the lower courts took the position that since SL did not deny reaching for his waistband, the court could decide the case without a jury.  In that situation, the courts said Thompson would have been justified in using deadly force–even if no gun is found later.  The perceived threat is sufficient.

Sotomayor said the courts were making an awful mistake.  SL’s legal claim did dispute the facts–that he did not turn to Officer Thompson till he was shot in the back.  SL is basically saying that he got shot for disobeying an order given just seconds earlier and that’s excessive force.

Sotomayor isn’t saying that Officers Thompson was wrong to shoot.  She is making a more modest argument.  The jury should have heard both sides and then decided the case after hearing all the evidence.  She believes the courts are deciding too many of these kinds of cases prematurely and that the victims of police misconduct are having their claims improperly rejected.  She’s right.  Alas, only Justice Ginsburg joined Sotomayor’s dissent.  Still, the dissent raised the profile of the problem and will help ignite a debate in this important corner of the law.

We should note that Sotomayor cites this article by Radley Balko that collects cases of persons shot by police where the justification was “reaching for the waistband” and it turned out there was no gun.  That is just too thin a basis for the use of deadly force on people.  To be clear, the officer could draw his weapon and he could take cover and issue more commands to a suspect to show his hands.  But opening fire without seeing a gun in such circumstances seems wrong.  At the least, the jury should have decided whether the shot was truly justified.

 

Worst of the Month — December

For December we’ve selected two former police officers from East Point, Georgia, who were found guilty of criminal charges last month in relation to the killing of Gregory Towns.

Here’s the background: Two police officers, Marcus Eberhart and Howard Weems, were responding to a domestic disturbance call.  When they arrived on the scene, Gregory Towns tried to flee on foot.  The police caught him and placed him in handcuffs.  When the officers ordered Towns to stand up and walk to the police car, he said he was exhausted and too tired to walk.  Frustrated, the police responded by tasing Towns so that he would comply with their commands.  Towns was tased several times and he died.

At their criminal trial, the officers told the jury, via their legal counsel, that Towns died from an illness unrelated to the tasing, but if they did not believe that, the jury should understand that the tasing was the only way to get Towns to the police car.

Tulsa Officer Charged with Manslaughter for Killing Terence Crutcher

Late Thursday afternoon, the Tulsa County, Oklahoma district attorney announced that he filed a charge of first-degree manslaughter against Officer Betty Shelby for fatally shooting Terence Crutcher.

The shooting has garnered national attention as it was captured on both dashcam and police helicopter film. Despite the video evidence, the case is hardly open-and-shut win for the prosecution here. The law is generally on the side of the police officers, as I explained earlier this week at Timeline:

Despite repeated public outcry in highly publicized cases like this one, data shows that police officers are in fact very rarely charged or successfully prosecuted for on-duty shootings or other uses of force. According to aWashington Post investigation, between 2005 and 2015, just 54 officers were prosecuted for shootings. Assuming that the almost 1,000 police shooting deaths recorded in 2015 wasn’t a statistical outlier, that’s 54 cases out of nearly 10,000 fatal shootings.

[…]

Put simply, a fearful police officer is a very dangerous one. If he can articulate a plausible narrative that he believed he or his life was in danger — often involving the suspect making a “sudden” or “furtive movement,” or “reaching for his waistband” as if for a gun — any lack of actual danger or dangerous weapon is not relevant to the officer’s legal culpability.

The prosecutor apparently feels confident that he can win or, perhaps, that the political consequences of a tried and failed prosecution outweigh not bringing charges at all. As the nation saw in the trials of the officers who killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore, simply bringing charges is no guarantee of a conviction.

We’ll keep an eye on this case, as well as the developing stories in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

You can read the whole Timeline piece here.

 

Worst of the Month — July

So for July we’ve chosen the case from Berrien County, Tennessee where the former sheriff pled guilty to beating up prisoners in-custody.  These prisoners were in handcuffs and were not resisting or threatening anyone.  Here’s an excerpt from the local news:

According to Heath’s guilty plea, on Jan. 12, 2012, Heath and deputies from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office were engaged in a foot chase of an individual identified only as M.V., who had been banned from traveling through the county. During the chase, Heath saw M.V. and called out to him, “You better not run or I will beat your a**,” or words to that effect, according to the justice department. M.V. reportedly responded by running into a nearby wooded area.

Heath and deputies followed M.V. into the woods, where a deputy eventually saw M.V. and arrested him without incident. When a deputy reported that M.V. was in custody, Heath reportedly ordered deputies to wait and hold M.V. in the woods. When Heath arrived, M.V. was lying face down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed behind his back and was not resisting arrest, according to the press release.

Heath kicked M.V. in the ribs, punched him in the head with a closed fist multiple times and forcefully kneed him in the ribs multiple times, causing M.V. to experience pain and have difficulty breathing, according to the justice department.

Read the whole thing.  The former sheriff, Anthony Heath, is facing two counts of violating civil rights under the color of law.  Each count carries a maximum sentence of ten years, but the actual sentence is expected to be far less.

We are of course aware of several officer-involved shootings last month that received national and international attention.  Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge; Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota;  Paul O’Neal was killed in Chicago; and Charles Kinsey was shot and wounded in North Miami.  The investigations into these incidents are underway and we will, as usual, be posting updates.

Beating Caught on Tape

Several police officers from different departments are now under investigation after a news helicopter filmed them beating a man after a high speed chase that started in Massachusetts and ended in Nashua, New Hampshire.  The video appears to show the driver following police commands to get down on the pavement so he can be handcuffed and taken into custody, but then the beating begins.  More here.

Worst of the Month — April

James King was minding his own business when he was confronted by two menacing men.   King didn’t know these men and he wanted to get away from them, but they chased him and beat him up.

Turns out the men were police officers working on a fugitive task force.  They thought King was one of their fugitives, but they were mistaken about that.  They were out of uniform when they confronted King and, according to King’s lawsuit, they did not identify themselves as police officers.  Worried about his own safety, King ran away from them.

One of the officers put King in a chokehold till he lost consciousness.  When King came to, he again feared for his own safety and bit the arm of one of the officers in a gambit to get away from them.  The bite infuriated the officer, who then unleashed a torrent of punches on King’s face and head.

Bystanders were alarmed by what they were witnessing and they called 911.  The responding officer, for his part, told the witnesses to delete the cell phone videos of the incident.  He was worried about the safety of the officers, who had undercover jobs.  They shouldn’t be recorded.

When things settled down, and the police realized their mistake, they decided to arrest King anyway.  He fought back during his arrest–that’s a crime.

Prosecutors evidently agreed that King needed to be punished–so they charged him with three felonies.

King declined to plea bargain and insisted on a jury trial.  The jury acquitted him of all charges.

A civil lawsuit is now pending.   There’s no indication of any discipline for the officers involved.  They’re apparently still out there policing.

Worst of the Month — February

So for February we have selected the reported misconduct of Officer Matt Rush from Champaign, Illinois.

Last month Precious Jackson filed a lawsuit against Rush and his employer for excessive force when Rush arrested her.  According to the lawsuit, Rush’s actions caused Jackson to lose her unborn baby.  Jackson also says that she begged to be taken to a hospital but that Rush and the other officers on the scene ignored her pleas and took her to the jail instead.

Local news agencies report that the City of Champaign has settled several similar lawsuits involving Rush to the tune of $320,000.  The police chief actually fired Rush for lies in police reports and omitting important details in the incidents he was involved in.

A labor arbitrator overturned the police chief’s discipline and reinstated Rush to his job.

 

 

Trouble in Chicago

From a New York Times editorial:

The cover-up that began 13 months ago when a Chicago police officer executed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on a busy street might well have included highly ranked officials who ordered subordinates to conceal information. But the conspiracy of concealment exposed last week when the city, under court order, finally released a video of the shooting could also be seen as a kind of autonomic response from a historically corrupt law enforcement agency that is well versed in the art of hiding misconduct, brutality — and even torture.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel demonstrated a willful ignorance when he talked about the murder charges against the police officer who shot Mr. McDonald, seeking to depict the cop as a rogue officer. He showed a complete lack of comprehension on Tuesday when he explained that he had decided to fire his increasingly unpopular police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, not because he failed in his leadership role, but because he had become “a distraction.”

Mr. Emanuel’s announcement that he had appointed a task force that will review the Police Department’s accountability procedures is too little, too late. The fact is, his administration, the Police Department and the prosecutor’s office have lost credibility on this case.

Still more on cover-up allegations here.

Protests in Chicago: The Laquan McDonald Shooting

From the Chicago Tribune:

Hours after a Chicago police officer was ordered held without bond on a first-degree murder charge, the city released a shocking police dash-cam video that captured the white officer opening fire on an African American teen on a Southwest Side street, striking him 16 times and killing him.

The video is about six minutes long and appears to show 17-year-old Laquan McDonald running down the middle of Pulaski Road near 41st Street when Officer Jason Van Dyke, standing next to his SUV, opens fire….

The case marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years. Van Dyke faces a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

The charge comes less than a week after a Cook County judge ordered the release of a video that Emanuel’s administration had long sought to keep out of public view. As the mayor urged prosecutors to conclude their investigation Monday, he met with community leaders and aldermen to defend his handling of the controversy amid criticism that City Hall has not done enough to address police misconduct.

Fullerton to Pay $4.9m to Family of Kelly Thomas

As longtime readers of this blog may remember, the Fullerton, California police violently beat Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill homeless man, who died from his injuries. The arrest was recorded, and Thomas could be heard calling for his father as the officers relentlessly beat him into a coma.

Kelly ThomasTwo officers were fired for the incident but ultimately acquitted of criminal charges in the case. As opening arguments were set to begin in the wrongful death suit, the City of Fullerton agreed to pay the Thomas family $4.9 million as a settlement.

Ron Thomas said at a news conference that while the city acknowledged no wrongdoing in the settlement, it was a clear indication to him of its liability and guilt in the death of his 37-year-old son Kelly Thomas. Thomas said he feels vindicated by the settlement.

It is not uncommon for municipalities to disavow any culpability in settlements like this. But lawsuits are important nonetheless because they bring some measure of closure to the families who do not find justice in the criminal courts and incentivize governments to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

On Tuesday, December 1, Cato will host “Policing in America,” an all-day conference dedicated to discussing the policies and impacts of law enforcement around the country. The event will be live-streamed on the Cato website.