ST. LOUIS — The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a mixed ruling in claims against police officers and the municipalities that employed them during violence that erupted following the Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
A federal judge for the Eastern District of Missouri had granted individual defendants summary judgment on all plaintiffs' claims, the ruling filed Aug. 1 indicates.
However, in one instance involving claims of excessive force, the appeals court reversed and remanded in this appeal, which combined the claims of six sets of plaintiffs over police response to demonstrations.
Nathan Burns, who did not follow police orders to disperse, was sprayed with pepper spray, according to background information in the ruling. He claimed that while in handcuffs an officer with pepper spray on his hands placed his hand between Burns' pants and underwear and rubbed his genital area. His suit claimed false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil rights violations and other charges.
The appeals court upheld the lower court's summary judgment ruling for defendants, saying that, among other things, Burns failed to present specific evidence of bad faith or malice in his false arrest claim.
Damon Coleman and Theophilus Green, who had been near a group of 15-20 people who were repeatedly ordered disperse, failed to leave when the group did. The ruling states they made no effort to leave while yelling at police officers. After they were struck with "nonlethal" projectiles, they were arrested. Coleman claimed that while he was laying on his stomach and being handcuffed, he was kicked, struck with a stick and dragged on the ground.
They sued on allegations of false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, unreasonable seizure and excessive force, as well as failure to properly train officers. The appeals court disagreed with their argument that police did not have probable cause.
"That night, a large crowd had gathered in Ferguson and had turned violent," the ruling states. "The police issued multiple orders to the crowd to disperse, but Coleman and Green did not follow the orders. On these facts, the individual defendants could have reasonably concluded that Coleman and Green were 'cognizant of the unlawful acts being committed by the other members of the assembly,' chose not to disassociate themselves from the assembly, had heard the dispersal orders, and chose not to disperse."
Antawn Harris also refused to disperse when ordered and had been struck in the face with a nonlethal projectile for which he was treated for at a hospital and discharged but sought no follow up care, according to the ruling. He too sued on claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery and other claims. His only argument on appeal was that St. Louis County officers under supervision of Chief Jon Belmar were not properly trained, supervised or disciplined.
In affirming the dismissal of Harris's claims, the appeals court found that municipal liability does not attach unless individual liability is found on an underlying substantive claim, and Harris argued no other claims on appeal.
Kerry White, Sandy Bowers and Kai Bowers were in a car driving toward a police line and did not stop until the car was close to that line. They were arrested for refusing to disperse. Their suit also claimed false arrest, assault and battery, unreasonable seizure and failure to train, supervise and discipline officers.
The appeals court also upheld the dismissal of their claims, finding that officers had "at least arguable probable cause" to arrest for refusal to disperse and are entitled to qualified immunity.
Tracey White and her son, William Davis, had participated in a rally and then walked to a McDonald's restaurant. After about an hour, officers told everyone inside the restaurant they had to leave, as businesses along West Florissant Avenue were being cleared due to violence in the preceding days. A crowd of people was directed to move farther west on Ferguson Avenue due to a truck that had been stuck in the grass and officers not knowing "who was driving the truck or why it was there," the ruling states.
White was arrested for not complying with an order to disperse; Davis was arrested when he failed to leave the area while his mother was being arrested. They sued claiming false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, and other claims.
The appeals court also affirmed the lower court's ruling in favor of the defendants in White and Davis's appeal.
"At the time of the arrests of White and Davis the police had been attempting to clear the intersection of Ferguson Avenue and Sharondale Circle because there was a truck stuck near the intersection," the ruling states. "The police decided to clear the area because protestors had attacked them on previous nights from this vicinity and they had not yet ascertained whether the truck was a threat to them under these conditions. White and Davis were thus instructed to either continue walking west on Ferguson Avenue or proceed north on Sharondale Circle. When White and Davis did not comply with the officers' orders to clear the area, the officers arrested them."
Finally, DeWayne Matthews had kept walking toward a police line in spite of loud verbal commands to turn around and walk the other way, according to the ruling. Matthews said in testimony that he was struck by about five bean bag rounds and four rubber bullets. A round that struck him in the shin landed him in a culvert with 2-3 three feet of water. Matthews claimed that before officers pulled him out, they held his head under water for three to five seconds before lifting him out and slamming him face first into the pavement. He further claimed that he had been beaten by officers.
He sued claiming false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, negligent infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, negligent supervision, excessive force and failure to train.
Here, the appeals court found the lower court erred in granting qualified immunity with respect to Matthews' claims that officers held his head under water, pepper sprayed him and took turns punching and kicking him for two to three minutes.
"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," the ruling states.
The appeals court also reversed the lower court's grant of summary judgment on Matthews' failure to train, supervise and discipline as it relates to his excessive force claims.