Judges dismissed an appeal by the mother of a 23-year-old man named Luke Stewart of a lower court ruling that dismissed his claims under federal law in a civil lawsuit against the city Euclid and an officer involved in the 2017 incident.
Matthew Rhodes, the officer who shot Stewart in the chest and neck at point blank range, avoided liability for those claims with a legal defense called qualified immunity, even though the lower court determined that a jury could find that he unlawfully used excessive force.
The lawsuit brought by Mary Stewart accused Rhodes and another officer of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition of the U.S. Constitution on unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial also accused Euclid’s police of a pattern of unconstitutional practices, particularly against blacks. Her son was Black. The officers are white.
Qualified immunity protects police officers and other types of government officials from civil prosecution in certain circumstances, allowing prosecution only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
Recent investigations have shown how, under the leadership of the Supreme Court, lower federal courts are increasingly granting qualified immunity to police officers accused of excessive force, even when they have determined officers to have acted unlawfully.
Stewart was sleeping in his car when the police ran into him. Rhodes entered the vehicle as Stewart attempted to pull away. Rhodes punched Stewart, shocked him, then hit him with a Taser, and finally shot Stewart in the chest and neck with a pistol.
The case revealed disturbing revelations about Euclid’s police department, such as training material which included an illustration of an officer in riot gear hitting a person lying on the ground, next to the caption ” protecting you and serving you shit ”.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, ruled in 2020 that if a jury could find Rhodes’ use of lethal force was excessive, the officer was protected. by qualified immunity because no previous case had “clearly established” that the conduct was illegal.
Although the appeals court called the training material “unpleasant” and “inappropriate,” it dismissed the complaint against the city, saying that if an agent’s violation was not clearly established, a municipality would not. could not be held responsible either.
Qualified immunity has come under increasing scrutiny following protests in many U.S. cities last year against racism and police brutality over the death of a black man named George Floyd after a white Minneapolis officer knelt at his neck for nine minutes.
In March, the Democratic-led US House of Representatives passed a law on police reform that would deprive officers of qualified immunity. The bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, with Republicans opposed to this provision and others.