A federal appeals court on Tuesday breathed new life into a multimillion dollar lawsuit alleging that police in Ferguson, Missouri, used excessive force on protesters during the civil unrest following the death of Michael Brown in 2014.
A unanimous three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that one of the nine plaintiffs, DeWayne Matthews, could move forward with his claims that Ferguson police used excessive force when they arrested him on August 13, 2014.
The ruling reverses part of the lower court’s decision last October to dispense with the entire lawsuit by granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants on each of the plaintiffs’ claims.
The panel agreed that the district court judge, Henry Autrey, had properly dispensed with the plaintiffs’ state law claims for false arrest, finding that in each case the arresting officer had probable cause to make the arrest and was entitled to qualified immunity on those claims. In Missouri, qualified immunity protects public officials from liability for injuries they cause by actions that they take, as long as those actions are not taken in bad faith or maliciously.
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But the panel found that Autrey had mistakenly tossed out Matthews’ excessive force claims, which allegedly included a beating at the hands of five or six officers who called Matthews racial slurs like “nigger” and “mop head,” according to the court ruling.
“We have previously concluded that police officers had used an objectively unreasonable amount of force when they allegedly kicked and punched an individual while he was handcuffed on the ground and no longer resisting,” Circuit Judge Diana E. Murphy wrote for the unanimous panel, which included staunch conservative James B. Loken.
“Matthews was lying on the ground, handcuffed, and not resisting arrest while officers kicked, punched, and pepper sprayed him. Matthews also testified that while he was lying face down in the culvert, officers approached him and held his head underwater for three to five seconds,” Murphy continued.
“This is the type of gratuitous force that is objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” Murphy added.
In his ruling tossing Matthews’ claims, Autrey noted that Matthews made contradictory statements.
“Although Matthews claims he was subjected to a ‘gruesome’ beating by 5 or 6 officers, his own statements belie his position,” Autrey wrote.
“He told the paramedics that he was told to evacuate, he did not; he was shot with rubber bullets and tear gas after he did not heed the orders. Matthews told hospital personnel that he did not lose consciousness, even though he claims he did. The X-rays and CT scans that were taken were normal. He was released from the emergency room and was not admitted to the hospital. He had no follow up care.”
But Autrey’s characterization of the record was misleading, the panel said.
“Matthews’ medical records simply indicate that he told the doctor that he had not lost consciousness, had not told paramedics about the beating or drowning, and that his X-rays and CT scans were normal. None of this evidence contradicts Matthews’ testimony that he had been beaten and drowned,” Murphy wrote.
The court pointed out that even if medical evidence conflicted with Matthew’s testimony, “it is ‘the role of the jury’ to resolve such conflicts.”
The lawsuit was originally filed on August 28, 2014, but after another series of protests in October of that year, more plaintiffs were added to the $41.5 million lawsuit, according to Courthouse News.
Police in Ferguson and St. Louis made hundreds of arrests in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. In November 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for killing Brown, prompting a new wave of protests and arrests.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) under then-Attorney General Eric Holder launched an investigation into the matter and ultimately decided not to bring criminal charges against Wilson, but issued a scathing report in March 2015 detailing, as Holder remarked, the “highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices.” Holder added that “it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”
That report spurred months of negotiations between the DOJ and Ferguson city officials, which culminated in a settlement agreement known as a consent decree. Ferguson is still bound by that consent decree, although given Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s instructions to DOJ officials to review all police reform agreements to ensure that they don’t work against Trump’s “law-and-order” agenda, the future of the Ferguson consent decree is unclear.
Trump’s law-and-order agenda includes encouraging the police to treat suspects roughly. Last week during a speech in Long Island, New York, Trump encouraged police to not be “too nice.”
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said.
“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” he continued. “Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’”
The speech drew widespread condemnation from police departments across the country with local and federal law enforcement agencies, like the Suffolk County Police Department in Long Island pushing back on the president’s call for excessive force.