Saturday, December 18, 2021

Being a Black Man Sure Sounds "Reasonably Suspicious" To Me, Says Eighth Circuit

It's another 8th Circuit special!

This week's entry is Irvin v. Richardson, involving a so-called "Terry stop" in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Police were called to the scene by a woman who reported three Black men having an argument, one of whom displayed a weapon. Two of the men (including the alleged gun owner) were described further, the third was not. Officers show up and see two Black men who match the description of ... neither of two described gentlemen. So naturally, they draw their guns, force the men to the ground, handcuff them, and pat them for weapons as both men protest their innocence. No weapons are found, and eventually, the original caller comes by and says "no, these aren't the guys I was talking about". Oopsy-daisy.

The men sue and say "there was no reasonable suspicion to stop us -- we didn't look like the descriptions the officers had, and in particular not like the man who supposedly displayed a firearm." Eighth Circuit  (in a 2-1 decision, with Judge Kelly writing her usual exasperated dissent) replies "but there was a third, undescribed individual who was allegedly involved in the argument, and since the police didn't know what he looked like, that means there's 'reasonable suspicion' that any Black man in the vicinity could be that guy. Qualified immunity."

Every day I'm proud anew to be a clerkship alum of this august circuit.


Bob K. said...

This ties into something I've been wondering for a while. As much as these broad applications of qualified immunity offend my moral and legal sensibilities, how much do they actually affect victims' abilities to pursue justice? As I understand it, a finding of qualified immunity just means the victim has to sue the city instead of the officers personally. On the other hand, when officers don't get qualified immunity, the city usually indemnifies them. Either way, the end result is that the victims get to make their case in court for a taxpayer-funded restitution. Meanwhile, penalties that more properly address the problem (jail time, blacklisting from law enforcement careers, etc) are out of scope for civil trials. Am I missing something?

David Schraub said...

Unfortunately, it isn't typically the case that victims can (successfully) sue the city in these cases. In order to hold the city liable, one must show that the officer's unconstitutional conduct was done as a result of official or unofficial city policy, which is very hard to prove. One cannot hold the city liable simply on a theory of respondeat superior. In the vast majority of cases, if there's no individual liability for the officers (which, yes, is typically indemnified by the city), there's going to be no liability period.