(CN) — In a split decision, the 10th Circuit ruled Tuesday that a Salt Lake City, Utah, police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of an unarmed 20-year-old shot and killed outside a 7-11 in 2014.
On Aug. 11, 2014, officer Bron Cruz responded to a 911 call about two suspicious Hispanic men with a gun walking down the street. Over the course of eight minutes, officers tailed three young men to the 7-11.
Cruz arrived mid-confrontation as Dillon Taylor lifted his shirt and walked away from police. Taylor's cousin and brother held their hands up. Within 22 seconds of arriving at the scene, Cruz left his car, ran after Taylor and shot him twice.
Taylor’s surviving family sued the city and Cruz in 2015, claiming a violation of Taylor’s Fourth Amendment rights.
In 2019, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, appointed by Barack Obama, granted qualified immunity to Cruz. Taylor’s family appealed in May 2020, arguing a jury should have decided the case.
Before he was shot, Taylor’s last words were “nah fool.” In review of Nuffer's summary judgment, the 10th Circuit concluded a 68-page opinion with “we affirm that judgment.”
"The Fourth Amendment is clear: officers need not wait until they see the gun’s barrel or the knife’s blade before using deadly force to protect themselves or those around them,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome Holmes, appointed by George W. Bush.
While the majority opinion acknowledged Taylor had not been convicted of any crime, the court still found it reasonable for Cruz to believe Taylor was capable of threatening the officer's life.
"Despite the likely low-level of the crime under investigation (if a crime at all) and the lack of a reasonable basis to arrest Mr. Taylor (or intent to do so), the totality of the circumstances indicates that — by the time Officer Cruz discharged his gun — he reasonably perceived that Mr. Taylor posed an immediate, mortal threat to his safety or the safety of others,” Holmes wrote.
The panel found that learning whether Taylor was actually armed or posed a threat after the fact did not change the police officers' perception in the moment.
"Although Mr. Taylor ‘was unarmed,’ that does not resolve whether the officers violated his constitutional rights," Holmes wrote. "The salient question is whether the officers’ mistaken perceptions that Mr. Taylor was about to use a firearm were reasonable."
In response to Taylor’s argument that his only crime was being “Hispanic and young,” Holmes added a footnote claiming the law is neutral to race.
“Plaintiffs appear to invite us to modify the Fourth Amendment’s objective-reasonableness standard to take into account the race of the citizen interacting with law enforcement — and, more specifically, a given police officer’s subjective perception of the race of a citizen and the officer’s possible racial bias,” Holmes wrote. “We reject plaintiffs’ argument based on the ‘national concern and awareness surrounding police violence against unarmed men and women of color.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn McHugh, an Obama appointee, joined Holmes' opinion.
While Holmes and McHugh observed the body-camera footage as showing an objective picture of Taylor taunting police, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero disagreed.
"After reading the majority opinion, I am left to wonder whether I viewed the same video evidence as my colleagues,” the Bill Clinton appointee wrote in a 25-page dissent.
"Although my colleagues pay lip service to the legal standard we use to evaluate qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage, they misapply it throughout,” Lucero wrote. “Rather than ask the operative question: what a reasonable jury could conclude about Officer Cruz’s actions, the majority seats itself in the jury box and makes its own declaration that Officer Cruz acted objectively reasonably."
Lucero called the majority opinion a rubber stamp and a misapplication of the law.
The Taylor family’s attorney, Mark Geragos, read Lucero’s passionate dissent as a call for the Supreme Court to take up the issue.
“If there was ever a case that was the poster child for repealing the judicially created qualified immunity, this is the case,” said the Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney.
“Here you've got three judges split in very sharp disagreement, and I think Judge Lucero called it: how in the world can a judge take this case away from a jury?” Gregaros said. “This is a call for the U.S. Supreme Court to finally confront this issue and get rid of qualified immunity once and for all.”
The Salt Lake City Police Department described the event as tragic in a statement.
“The SLCPD acknowledges the tragedy of this incident and the very real fact that our officer reacted quickly and reasonably in a perilous and uncertain situation,” the Salt Lake City Police Department said in a statement. “We understand this is part of a nationwide conversation on officer liability and use of force. The Salt Lake City Police Department is committed to ensuring the safety our community and our officers by constantly evaluating use of force standards.”
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