Eighth Circuit Rejects Defamation Claims of Former St. Louis Cop

Protesters march in the streets of St. Louis on Sept. 15, 2017, in response to the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who killed a black motorist in 2011. (Courthouse News photo/Joe Harris).

ST. LOUIS (CN) — The Eighth Circuit ruled Monday that a former St. Louis circuit attorney is entitled to absolute immunity over her prosecution of a white former police officer, whose acquittal in the death of a black motorist sparked a wave of often violent protests.

The St. Louis-based appellate court also dismissed due process and defamation claims against the prosecutor and a malicious prosecution claim against a police investigator.

The former officer, Jason Stockley, claimed that investigators intentionally disregarded and lied about evidence in charging him with murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith following a police chase after a suspected drug deal.

Stockley was not charged until nearly five years after the incident. He filed his lawsuit shortly after his acquittal in September 2017.

Jason Stockley. (St. Louis Police Department)

In February 2019, the late U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw dismissed the case, ruling that former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and former St. Louis police internal affairs investigator Kirk Deeken either had absolute or qualified immunity from being sued because of their positions. He also ruled that the lawsuit failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Shaw’s ruling prompted Stockley’s appeal to the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed the finding of immunity.

Stockley’s attorney, Michael Gross, said he was disappointed and “troubled” by parts of the ruling, but has not determined any next steps.

“I have not talked to Mr. Stockley yet and it’s going to be his call,” Gross said in an interview.

Joyce’s attorney, David Luce, lauded the ruling.

“It certainly reaffirms that a prosecutor who decides that a police officer engages in conduct that is criminal, that decision to pursue that police officer is a decision in which the prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity, which it should,” Luce said in an interview.

Stockley based his claims against Joyce on her decision to terminate a Force Investigation Unit, or FIU, probe after one day while opting to charge him with first-degree murder.

U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond W. Gruender, a George W. Bush appointee, cited the 1996 case of Brodnicki v. City of Omaha in the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

Stockley “argues that this was investigative misconduct, particularly in light of the fact that the charging decision came years after the incident with Smith and the fact that it was in violation of Joyce’s own protocol regarding FIU investigations,” Gruender wrote in the 18-page opinion. “Accordingly, he argues that such conduct is not protected by absolute immunity. However, ‘[t]he decisions relating to the initiation and dismissal of cases are at the very heart of a prosecutor’s function as an advocate for the state, and absolute immunity thus attaches to those decisions.’”

The three-judge panel also shot down Stockley’s claim that statements Joyce made to the media violated his right to due process.

“I think one of the things I liked particularly about it is that the court recognized that part of what prosecutors have to do is communicate what they’re going to do to the public and that was the basis to finding there was no defamation,” Luce said in an interview. “I think the idea that a prosecutor can’t file a charge and then tell somebody in the media that they filed a charge is ridiculous and that’s all she ever did.”

Gross, though, found this part of the ruling the most troubling. In particular, he takes issue with the appeals court’s phrasing that one of Joyce’s statements to the media “does not remotely rise to the conscience-shocking level,” which would trigger a due process violation.

He said the complaint filed on behalf of Stockley claimed Joyce lied about the new evidence and as a matter of review, the court has to take those allegations as fact.

“The allegation is that when you tell all the jurors a lie about evidence that exists and that you have judged sufficient to prove him guilty of first-degree murder and there isn’t any new evidence, the Eighth Circuit says you can do that and it doesn’t shock the conscience,” Gross said. “My reaction when I read that is, ‘Is this what we’ve come to?’”

The appeals court also found in Joyce’s favor on Stockley’s claim that she defamed him by falsely stating that she had new evidence that proves he was guilty of first-degree murder. The panel concluded that any damages to Stockley’s reputation would come with his charge, arrest and prosecution.

The Eighth Circuit also affirmed the dismissal of malicious prosecution claims against Deeken.

“The affidavit included facts, which Stockley does not challenge, tending to support a finding of probable cause: during the chase, Stockley stated he was ‘going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,’ he then ordered his partner to strike the back of Smith’s vehicle, and finally he shot Smith five times,” Gruender wrote. “In light of these facts, it would not be impossible to conclude that probable cause would have been found if the misrepresentation had been corrected and the omissions had been included.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby E. Shepherd, another George W. Bush appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Morris S. Arnold, a George H. W. Bush appointee, joined Gruender on the panel.

Carolyn Shapiro, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said the opinion doesn’t seem extreme and that Joyce appeared to be doing her job.

“Here you have a police officer that, certainly, one can see why there were concerns about his conduct after reading the facts, and after he’s acquitted, he sues the prosecutor,” Shapiro said in an interview. “In this case the immunity actually works to promote prosecutorial checks on the police. If a police officer who is prosecuted and acquitted can just turn around and just sue the prosecutor for having violated his rights, that in itself would be a deterrent for bringing those charges.”

Joyce’s office filed first-degree murder charges against Stockley in 2016, well after the 2011 incident. The case was prosecuted by Kim Gardner, who was not named as a party in the case. Gardner was elected after Joyce chose not to seek reelection the following year.

Stockley claimed the shooting was in self-defense, following a high-speed chase through residential neighborhoods. He testified he saw Smith reach for a gun in his car.

Prosecutors accused Stockley of planting the gun to back up his account.

After a city judge found Stockley not guilty, thousands took to St. Louis city streets in protests that led to hundreds of arrests and sometimes turned violent.

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