U.S. Supreme Court holds 5th Circuit improperly allowed officer’s qualified immunity at this stage of trial.

Tolan v. Cotton No. 13-551 (U.S. May 5, 2014,)

This is a police officer qualified immunity case where the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit’s grant of qualified immunity.

Officer Cotton fired three bullets at Tolan puncturing his right lung. Tolan sued. The trial court granted Cotton’s summary judgment motion which the 5th Circuit affirmed on qualified immunity grounds. The 5th Circuit essentially reasoned (according to the Supreme Court) that regardless of whether or not Cotton used excessive force, he was entitled to qualified immunity since he did not violate clearly established law. However, the Court criticized the 5th Circuit, noting it failed to adhere to proper summary judgment standards in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant.

The evidence established that an officer Edwards accidently keyed the wrong license plate while performing an inspection of a car parked on the side of the road, but was in front of Tolan’s parents’ house. Tolan exited the car and attempted to enter the house. The incorrect plate registered as a stolen vehicle and the computer automatically sent a signal to nearby units, resulting in Cotton’s arrival.  Tolan obeyed Officer Edwards command to lie face down on the ground while sorting out the situation. Tolan’s parents came out of the house and explained to officer Edwards the car was the family car, Tolan was their son and no crime had been committed. A factual dispute exists as to how Cotton responded to the parent’s intervention, but agree to some extend that Cotton placed his hands upon Tolan’s mother in an attempt to escort her to stand near the garage as ordered. Upon seeing the treatment of his mother, Tolan rose to his knees. He yelled at Cotton to “get his [*&^!} hands off my mom.” (Explicative redacted). In response, Cotton drew his pistol and fired three shots at Tolan. The Court noted that while Tolan survived, the injury disrupted “his budding professional baseball career.”

The Court began analyzing the 5th Circuit’s analysis and reasoning for upholding the dismissal on qualified immunity grounds. The essence of the Circuit opinion is that under the circumstances, with the mother refusing to obey orders, Tolan rising to his feet and proclaiming an aggressive challenge, a reasonable officer would have viewed the situation as posing an immediate threat and therefore did not violate a clearly established right. The Court then went through the two prong analysis for examining qualified immunity. It noted that the 5th Circuit failed to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-movant and improperly inferred facts thereby “weighing” the evidence. The Court listed several factual disputes which the 5th Circuit ignored or dismissed. The Court was careful to state that it was not holding in any way that Cotton is not entitled to qualified immunity, simply that factual disputes prevent such a determination at summary judgment. The Court vacated the 5th Circuit’s opinion and remanded to the trial court. Justice Alito, with whom Justice Scalia joined, concurred but wrote separately to point out that this case is not out of the ordinary and the Court should not have taken it to merely resolve a failure to follow standards. However, they do concur in the result.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per Curiam opinion.  If you want to read the 5th Circuit’s opinion click here. A list of attorneys can be found on the docket sheet here.