HOUSTON (CN) – Police officers have immunity against the claims of a young black man they detained and shot in the mistaken belief that he stole a car, a federal judge ruled.
After 12 cars were stolen in the affluent Houston community of Bellaire on Dec. 30, 2008, police were on high alert as New Year’s Eve dawned.
At 1:50 a.m., Officer John Edwards saw Robert Tolan make a sudden turn in Nissan SUV and followed him in his patrol car.
The six witnesses to the ensuing incidents all gave depositions that agreed on the night’s material facts.
After parking the Nissan at the home he shared with his parents, Bobby and Marian Tolan, and he and his cousin Anthony Cooper got out of the vehicle.
As he watched the men remove items from of the SUV, Edwards typed the Nissan’s license plate into his police car’s computer.
Edwards typed one digit in wrong, and the vehicle came back stolen.
After radioing for backup, Edwards shined his flashlight on Tolan and Cooper and approached the pair with his gun drawn, ordering them down to the ground.
Though Tolan and Cooper initially ignored Edwards’ demands, they say they went to the ground when Tolan’s parents, Bobby and Marian, came outside, saw what was going on, and told them to shut up and lie down.
Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton, who was working at headquarters at the time, responded to Edwards’ call for backup.
As Cotton parked his patrol car, he saw Edwards standing in the Tolans’ front yard with his gun drawn. Marian was moving around the yard, agitated and upset, questioning why the police were there.
Cotton drew his gun and approached Edwards, who told him the two car-burglary suspects were on the ground.
Cotton then grabbed Marian by the arm and moved her toward the garage. Her son, Robert, who was lying on the porch facing the home, yelled, “Get your fucking hands off my mom,” and began to turn and get up.
The sergeant then pushed Marion against the garage door and quickly fired three shots at Robert, one of which punctured his lung and lodged in his liver.
The injuries ended Robert Tolan’s career as an aspiring professional baseball player. Tolan’s father, Bobby, spent over a decade in Major League Baseball, debuting with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965.
The specter of celebrity and racial profiling made the incident national news.
The Tolans and Cooper sued the city of Bellaire, Edwards and Cotton in May 2009 for excessive force and violations of the 14th and Fourth Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon ruled that the officers had immunity in a decision dated March 31.
Officer Edwards testified he did not know the suspects were black until they stepped outside onto the porch of their home, and Cotton testified he did not know until he arrived on the scene.
“There is simply no admissible evidence plaintiffs can point to that contradicts this testimony, nor any admissible evidence that either officer was motivated to act due to the race of any of the plaintiffs,” Harmon wrote.
The ultimately inaccurate stolen vehicle report also gave officers reasonable suspicion to detain them, according to the court.
Cotton can also justify his shooting of Tolan since he allegedly believed Tolan was going to shoot him as he yelled about his mother. Cotton says Tolan had his hand near his waist band as he turned around from the ground.
Though the Tolans reject claims that Robert made any moves towards his waist, Judge Harmon said the shooting was still justified.
“Sergeant Cotton misinterpreted Robbie Tolan’s intended actions, but his firing on Robbie Tolan did not violate Robbie Tolan’s constitutional rights because Sergeant Cotton feared for his life and could reasonably have believed the shooting was necessary under the totality of the factual circumstances evidenced by the summary judgment record,” she wrote. “Robbie Tolan’s claims of excessive force against Sergeant Cotton must be dismissed.”
A jury acquitted Cotton of criminal charges for the shooting in May 2010.