ST. LOUIS (CN) – The police officer who shot Michael Brown is not entitled to qualified immunity in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the man who was with Brown when he died, the Eighth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
Dorian Johnson was with Brown, an unarmed black man, when he was shot by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014.
Brown’s death at the hands of Wilson, who is white, sparked months of often violent protests and brought the issues of excessive police force and racism into the national conversation.
On April 29, 2015, Johnson sued the city of Ferguson, Wilson and then-Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, claiming Wilson’s actions constituted unreasonable seizure and excessive force.
The complaint says Johnson and Brown were walking down Canfield Drive around noon on Aug. 9 when Wilson drove up in a marked police vehicle and told them to “Get the f*ck on the sidewalk.”
Wilson then allegedly parked his vehicle at an angle to block their path and detained the men without criminal suspicion. Johnson claims that Wilson stopped the vehicle “just inches from Brown and forcefully opened the door, striking Brown.”
Johnson’s lawsuit paints a different story of the one told by Wilson, who claimed that Brown charged him, forcing him to shoot. Johnson’s complaint alleges Wilson was the aggressor.
“Officer Wilson then reached through his window and grabbed Brown, who was closer to Officer Wilson than Plaintiff Johnson,” the complaint states. “Officer Wilson thereafter threatened to shoot his weapon. As Brown struggled to break free, Officer Wilson discharged his weapon twice, striking Brown in the arm.”
Fearing for their lives and surprised by the excessive use of force, Johnson claims he and Brown started running. At no time did Wilson yell “freeze” or “stop,” according to the complaint, which says Wilson shot Brown several more times, killing him, without provocation or justification.
Johnson’s lawsuit cites the Justice Department’s report released on March 4, 2015, that accuses the Ferguson Police Department of systematic racism.
He says the report is proof that the police department “has terrorized the African-American citizens in its community and engages in intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”
Johnson claims the pattern of racist behavior among Ferguson police allowed Wilson to shoot at him and Brown because the officer “did not fear any repercussion from defendants City of Ferguson or Thomas Jackson in taking the unlawful action.”
After a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November 2014, the DOJ conducted an independent investigation and also refused to file federal criminal charges.
The defendants argued that Wilson and Jackson were entitled to qualified immunity because Johnson failed to show that a constitutional violation occurred.
A federal judge denied the request for qualified immunity and the defendants appealed.
In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling Tuesday, finding that Johnson sufficiently proved that Wilson used excessive force and that Jackson condoned the behavior by failing to investigate the incident.
“At the time of the incident in this case, the law was sufficiently clear to inform a reasonable officer that it was unlawful to use deadly force against nonviolent, suspected misdemeanants who were not fleeing or resisting arrest, posed little or no threat to the officer or public, did not receive verbal commands to stop, and whose only action was to stop walking when a police car blocked their path,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michael J. Melloy wrote for the majority. “As a result, a reasonable officer in Officer Wilson’s position would not have shot his gun and the district court correctly denied qualified immunity to Officer Wilson at this stage in the proceedings.”
Melloy continued, “The fact that Chief Jackson received reports involving use of force indicates that he knew about Ferguson police officers’ conduct. Thus, Johnson has sufficiently alleged that Chief Jackson had notice of the unconstitutional acts committed by his officers. Further, by failing to review offense reports and hold officers accountable for excessive force, Chief Jackson was deliberately indifferent to the unconstitutional practices carried out by Ferguson police officers.”
Judge Diana E. Murphy joined Melloy in the majority.
Judge Roger L. Wollman dissented, finding that Johnson failed to prove that he was personally seized by Wilson during the altercation.
The Eighth Circuit remanded the case to the district court.