November 21st, 2020
US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Opinions
Joseph v. Bartlett
Opinion Date: November 20, 2020
Judge: Don R. Willett
Areas of Law: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law
Kendole Joseph's family filed suit against police officers after Joseph died during the course of an arrest. Plaintiffs alleged violations of Joseph's Fourth Amendment rights, as well as claims of excessive force and failure to intervene. In this case, after a middle school official reported that Joseph was acting "strange" near the school, school resource officers approached Joseph. Joseph ran into a nearby convenience store and jumped behind the check out counter. The school resource officers followed, with twelve additional officers joining them. About eight minutes after Joseph entered the store, the officers apprehended him and carried him to a police car, after which he became unresponsive and was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the Fifth Circuit held that, if a jury found those facts to be true, Officers Martin and Costa violated Joseph's right to be free from excessive force during a seizure by failing to employ a measured and ascending response to the threat Joseph posed. In this case, Joseph was not suspected of committing any crime, was in the fetal position, and was not actively resisting. Nonetheless, Officers Martin and Costa inflicted twenty-six blunt-force injuries on Joseph and tased him twice, all while he pleaded for help and reiterated that he was not armed. Therefore, the actions of Officers Martin and Costa were disproportionate to the situation, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the clearly established law. They are not entitled to summary judgment on the constitutional claims. However, the court held that nine "bystander officers" are entitled to qualified immunity where plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to show that these officers violated clearly established law. The court dismissed the appeal to the extent it challenges the district court's factfinding; affirmed the denial of summary judgment as to Officers Martin and Costa; and reversed the denial of summary judgment as to the nine bystander officers.
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