Controversy raged from coast to coast in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer. The circumstances of the shooting, the resultant protests and civil unrest, and the failure of a grand jury to hand down an indictment sparked a vigorous national debate about the relationship between law enforcement officials and African-Americans – as well as the use of force doctrine.
As a result of the attention brought by the August 9, 2014, Brown killing, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation of the Ferguson police department on September 5, 2014. The results of the investigation, completed on March 4, 2015, concluded that Ferguson officers routinely violate the constitutional rights of the city’s residents by discriminating against African-Americans and applying racial profiling – racial stereotypes – in a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct.”
The Brown killing and increased public scrutiny of the Ferguson police department brought to light the 2009 case of Henry Davis, who was charged with destruction of property for bleeding on the uniforms of police officers after he was “picked up in the Missouri town on an outstanding warrant in 2009 – by cops who didn’t realize he was not the same Henry Davis named in the arrest document,” as reported by The Daily Mail.
The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on July 28, 2015 allowing Davis to sue the City of Ferguson and the three individual police officers he alleged beat him.
Recapping the case, the Eighth Circuit wrote:
Davis was stopped for speeding and arrested for driving while intoxicated between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. on September 20, 2009. Officer Beaird transported Davis to the crowded Ferguson jail. When Officer Christopher Pillarick was unable to complete the booking process, Pillarick and Beaird escorted Davis to a cell where the only bunk was occupied. Davis requested a mat from a nearby stack. Pillarick refused because Davis was not cooperating. Davis refused to enter the cell. Beaird or Pillarick radioed for backup. White, Tihen, and Sergeant William Ballard responded. The deposition testimony differs dramatically concerning what happened next. It is undisputed that White pushed Davis into the cell and a short, bloody fight ensued. After it ended, White was treated at a hospital emergency room and eventually required surgery for a broken nose that had bled profusely. Davis was taken to the emergency room, where scalp bleeding was noted but he refused treatment. After his release two days later, Davis went to another emergency room where he was diagnosed with a concussion and a scalp laceration.
Noting that there was no video of the incident, the court continued:
The summary judgment record included testimony supporting a claim that White, Beaird, and Tihen each beat or kicked Davis after he was handcuffed and subdued on the floor of the cell. After the incident, Beaird completed four complaints charging Davis with the offense of “Property Damage” for transferring blood onto the uniforms of Beaird, Tihen, White, and Pillarick. Other charges relating to the traffic stop were also filed. Davis eventually pleaded guilty to careless driving, speeding, non-moving violations, and two counts of Destruction of City Property.
The district court assigned Davis’ case granted summary judgment for the defendants, dismissing Davis’ claim that White, Beaird, and Tihen used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The lower court granted the dismissal “on a narrow ground,” and the Eighth Circuit disagreed.
Quoting the district court ruling, the federal appeals court wrote:
“Qualified immunity shields police officers from liability for civil damages where their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Wertish v. Krueger, 433 F.3d 1062, 1066 (8th Cir. 2006) (quotation omitted). Noting that, until recently, some of our decisions suggested that an excessive force claim will not lie if the plaintiff suffered only “de minimis injuries,” the court concluded that the police officers were entitled to qualified immunity because, “as unreasonable as it may sound, a reasonable officer could have believed that beating a subdued and compliant Mr. Davis while causing only a concussion, scalp laceration, and bruising with almost no permanent damage did not violate the Constitution.” We disagree. […] We conclude the district court erred in granting summary judgment on this ground.
We will keep you posted on further developments and to read more about Davis’ arrest see: “In Ferguson, Mo., Before Michael Brown There Was Henry Davis,” published by NPR late last year. You can also check the CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 4:10-cv-01429-NAB and you can download the Eight Circuit Court ruling in Appellate Case No. 14-1722 here.