The United States Supreme Court overturned the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in a police shooting case based on the manner in which the 5th Circuit analyzed the case.
The case, Tolan v. Cotton, deals with the manner in which a court must analyze the facts when deciding whether an officer is entitled to summary judgment or qualified immunity.
At the outset it is important to note that an officer will be entitled to summary judgment when a court looks at the facts, as reported by the plaintiff, and concludes that the officer did not violate the Constitution. An officer is entitled to qualified immunity even if based on the facts as reported the plaintiff the officer’s conduct amounts to a Constitutional violation if at the time the officer acted, the law was not clearly established thus the officer would not know that his/her actions violated the Constitution.
The Court reported the facts of what occurred in Tolan as follows:
The following facts, which we view in the light most favorable to Tolan, are taken from the record evidence and the opinions below. At around 2:00 on the morning of December 31, 2008, John Edwards, a police officer, was on patrol in Bellaire, Texas, when he noticed a black Nissan sport utility vehicle turning quickly onto a residential street. The officer watched the vehicle park on the side of the street in front of a house. Two men exited: Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper.
Edwards attempted to enter the license plate number of the vehicle into a computer in his squad car. But he keyed an incorrect character; instead of entering plate number 696BGK, he entered 695BGK. That incorrect number matched a stolen vehicle of the same color and make. This match caused the squad car’s computer to send an automatic message to other police units, informing them that Edwards had found a stolen vehicle.
Edwards exited his cruiser, drew his service pistol and ordered Tolan and Cooper to the ground. He accused Tolan and Cooper of having stolen the car. Cooper responded, “That’s not true.” Record 1295. And Tolan explained, “That’s my car.” Ibid. Tolan then complied with the officer’s demand to lie face-down on the home’s front porch.
As it turned out, Tolan and Cooper were at the home where Tolan lived with his parents. Hearing the commotion, Tolan’s parents exited the front door in their pajamas. In an attempt to keep the misunderstanding from escalating into something more, Tolan’s father instructed Cooper to lie down, and instructed Tolan and Cooper to say nothing. Tolan and Cooper then remained facedown.
Edwards told Tolan’s parents that he believed Tolan and Cooper had stolen the vehicle. In response, Tolan’s father identified Tolan as his son, and Tolan’s mother explained that the vehicle belonged to the family and that no crime had been committed. Tolan’s father explained, with his hands in the air, “[T]his is my nephew. This is my son. We live here. This is my house.” Id., at 2059. Tolan’s mother similarly offered, “[S]ir this is a big mistake. This car is not stolen. . . . That’s our car.” Id., at 2075.
While Tolan and Cooper continued to lie on the ground in silence, Edwards radioed for assistance. Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton arrived on the scene and drew his pistol. Edwards told Cotton that Cooper and Tolan had exited a stolen vehicle. Tolan’s mother reiterated that she and her husband owned both the car Tolan had been driving and the home where these events were unfolding. Cotton then ordered her to stand against the family’s garage door. In response to Cotton’s order, Tolan’s mother asked, “[A]re you kidding me? We’ve lived her[e] 15 years. We’ve never had anything like this happen before.” Id., at 2077; see also id., at 1465.
The parties disagree as to what happened next. Tolan’s mother and Cooper testified during Cotton’s criminal trial 1 that Cotton grabbed her arm and slammed her against the garage door with such force that she fell to the ground. Id., at 2035, 2078-2080. Tolan similarly testified that Cotton pushed his mother against the garage door. Id., at 2479. In addition, Tolan offered testimony from his mother and photographic evidence to demonstrate that Cotton used enough force to leave bruises on her arms and back that lasted for days. Id., at 2078-2079, 2089-2091. By contrast, Cotton testified in his deposition that when he was escorting the mother to the garage, she flipped her arm up and told him to get his hands off her. Id., at 1043. He also testified that he did not know whether he left bruises but believed that he had not. Id., at 1044.
The parties also dispute the manner in which Tolan responded. Tolan testified in his deposition and during the criminal trial that upon seeing his mother being pushed, id., at 1249, he rose to his knees, id., at 1928. Edwards and Cotton testified that Tolan rose to his feet. Id., at 1051-1052, 1121.
Both parties agree that Tolan then exclaimed, from roughly 15 to 20 feet away, 713 F. 3d, at 303, “[G]et your fucking hands off my mom.” Record 1928. The parties also agree that Cotton then drew his pistol and fired three shots at Tolan. Tolan and his mother testified that these shots came with no verbal warning. Id., at 2019, 2080. One of the bullets entered Tolan’s chest, collapsing his right lung and piercing his liver. While Tolan survived, he suffered a life-altering injury that disrupted his budding professional baseball career and causes him to experience pain on a daily basis.
The Federal District Court ruled that Officer Cotton did not violate the Constitution and therefore was entitled to summary judgment. The United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled in favor of the officer, but on different grounds. The 5th Circuit ruled that even if Cotton’s actions were unconstitutional, the law was not clearly established therefore he was entitled to qualified immunity. In deciding in favor of the officer, the 5th Circuit cited the following facts:
[T]he front porch had been “dimly-lit”; Tolan’s mother had “refus[ed] orders to remain quiet and calm”; and Tolan’s words had amounted to a “verba[l] threa[t].” Ibid. Most critically, the court also relied on the purported fact that Tolan was “moving to intervene in” Cotton’s handling of his mother, id., at 305, and that Cotton therefore could reasonably have feared for his life, id., at 307. Accordingly, the court held, Cotton did not violate clearly established law in shooting Tolan.
In overturning the 5th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed that when a court is deciding a summary judgment or qualified immunity motion, the court must look at the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. In other words since Officer Cotton was the one seeking summary judgment and qualified immunity, the court handling the matter must look at the facts as reported by the plaintiff, in this case, Tolan. The Court then went through the facts relied upon by the 5th Circuit and determined that the 5th Circuit had relied on the facts as reported by the officer rather than the facts as reported by the plaintiff.
While this case provides no change to the state of the law on use of force, it does make clear for officers that when an officer, through his/her attorney is seeking to end the case by filing for summary judgment or qualified immunity, the court reviewing the motion must utilize the plaintiff’s facts, even though the officer is in disagreement with those facts, to determine whether the motion will be granted.
Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S.___, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 3112 (2014).
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.