By now almost everyone knows about the police shooting that is the subject of controversy in Ferguson, Missouri. By coincidence, the Supreme Court of the United States has recently weighed in on a different police shooting in the matter of Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861 (2014).
In Tolan, a police officer patrolling a neighborhood decided to look up a particular car’s license plate number in the state’s database to determine whether it was stolen. At the time the car was being driven by Plaintiff. The officer accidentally entered the wrong license plate number when he searched the database by mistyping a single number. The incorrect number happened to be that of an actual stolen car, which the officer therefore mistakenly believed was the car being driven by Plaintiff. As a result, the police officer pursued Plaintiff to his destination.
Plaintiff was going home, where he lived with his parents, to spend time with his cousin who was also in the car. Plaintiff and his cousin were sitting on the porch of his house when the police officer approached them with his gun drawn. Plaintiff complied with the officer’s commands. Not long after, Plaintiff’s mother and father exited the house because of all of the commotion outside and were also commanded to take a specific posture by the police officer at gunpoint. At all times all of the parties denied stealing the car.
During their interaction with the police officer, Plaintiff and his mother claimed that the officer grabbed the mother’s arm and slammed her against the garage door and caused her to fall. The officer denies having done this. Due to the officer’s alleged interaction with his mother, Plaintiff said “[g]et your [f—ing] hands off my mom” and rose from the ground, contrary to the commands given to him by the officer (Plaintiff claims he rose to his knees while the officer claims he got to his feet). Plaintiff’s rising led to the officer, without a verbal warning, shooting Plaintiff in his lung and liver from a distance of about 15 to 20 feet away.
Aside from those mentioned above, there were some facts in dispute between the parties, including whether the garage was dimly lit, the exact volume and tenor of the mother’s words to the officer, whether Plaintiff shouted at and/or threatened the officer, and whether Plaintiff approached the officer when the officer engaged with the mother.
Plaintiff brought suit against the officer for violating his Fourth Amendment rights on the basis that the officer used excessive force when he shot Plaintiff. The District Court ruled against Plaintiff and granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. On appeal the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision. Plaintiff appealed the Fifth Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court.
The legal issue presented for the Court’s review is the appropriate standard for summary judgment. The long established standard for summary judgment is to view all facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, in this case the Plaintiff. It is not the judge’s role, when ruling upon a motion for summary judgment, to weigh the evidence available or determine its truth, just to determine whether a reading of the facts presented, viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, could result in a ruling in favor of Plaintiff.
The Court determined that the Fifth Circuit did not appropriately view the facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, but, instead, made factual determinations as to lighting, the words stated by the parties, and the actions taken by the parties, among other things, that were not in a light most favorable to Plaintiff. Instead, the Fifth Circuit specifically determined these facts to weigh against Plaintiff. As a result, the Court remanded the motion for summary judgment back to the Fifth Circuit in order for it to render a decision using the appropriate legal standard.
Through this case, the Supreme Court of the United States has reaffirmed the importance of using the required evaluation standard when courts rule on motions, and, perhaps more importantly, is sending the message that it is willing to enforce those standards where appropriate.
Originally published in Upon Further Review on December 16, 2014 and can be found here.