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This week marks the three-year anniversary of the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While the shooting sparked a national debate about officers’ use of force that continues to this day, one of the civil suits arising from the shooting is just now percolating through the federal court system. On July 25, 2017, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s ruling that the shooting officer, Darren Wilson, is not entitled to qualified immunity based on Brown’s companion Dorian Johnson’s claims that Wilson used excessive force against the two when he seized them just before the shooting.
Johnson claims that Wilson, the Ferguson Chief of Police, and the City of Ferguson violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful detention and excessive force when Wilson allegedly racially profiled Brown and Johnson pursuant to an unlawful pattern of policing condoned by the City and its police chief. After a federal district court concluded that Wilson was not entitled to qualified immunity based on these allegations, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The defense of qualified immunity generally protects officers from civil liability for actions taken in the scope of their duties so long as those actions do not violate a clearly established constitutional right. The Eighth Circuit concluded that the virtually unprovoked shooting—as alleged in Johnson’s complaint—amounts to a constitutional violation and thus denied Wilson’s qualified immunity defense.
The Eighth Circuit’s ruling should not be viewed as an indictment against the defendants. Because the defendants appealed a denial of qualified immunity at the early “motion to dismiss” stage of litigation, the court could only consider the facts as Johnson had alleged them. Thus, the Eighth Circuit’s ruling only means that Johnson will now be able to conduct discovery to develop evidence for use at trial that might support his allegations. But developing supporting evidence could be a challenge, as the U.S. Department of Justice has already evaluated most (if not all) of the available evidence and concluded in an official report that Johnson’s testimony concerning some of his most pertinent allegations is “inconsistent with the forensic and physical evidence.”
Even so, after the parties conduct discovery, Wilson will be able to assert the qualified immunity defense again through a motion for summary judgment before Johnson’s claims can be presented to a jury. Thus, while the public reaction to the Ferguson shooting was swift, Johnson’s case demonstrates the slow pace of civil rights cases in federal courts. Three years after the shooting, Johnson is just now able to begin the discovery phase of litigation. And at the end of the discovery phase, he will undoubtedly face additional dispositive motions and appeals before he has a chance at trial.
For more information about qualified immunity and civil rights claims, contact Wes Jackson at 770-818-4246 or [email protected].