In a forceful per curiam decision handed down on May 5, 2014, the U.S.
Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Robert R. Tolan—a budding African-American professional baseball player who saw his athletic aspirations shattered by a bullet fired by a white Bellaire police officer named Jeffery Cotton. The shooting triggered a major racial blacklash in Harris County as national and local African-American leaders charged the shooting incident was the result of “racial profiling.” There is substantial merit in these charges.
Bellaire, Texas is a residential municipality in southwest Harris County surrounded by the City of Houston. It is a predominantly white community known as the “City of Homes.” While some of the facts in the Tolan case are in dispute, the core facts surrounding the tragic shooting of Tolan are not. In 2008, Tolan lived with his parents in a nice upscale Bellaire neighborhood. We will let the Supreme Court outline the facts of the shooting incident on New Year’s Eve in 2008; facts drawn from court testimony and documents:
“The following facts, which we view in the light most favorable to Tolan, are taken from the record evidence and the opinions below. At around 2:00 on the morning of December 31, 2008, John Edwards, a police officer, was on patrol in Bellaire, Texas, when he noticed a black Nissan sport utility vehicle turning quickly onto a residential street. The officer watched the vehicle park on the side of the street in front of a house. Two men exited: Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper.
“Edwards attempted to enter the license plate number of the vehicle into a computer in his squad car. But he keyed an incorrect character; instead of entering plate number 696BGK, he entered 695BGK. That incorrect number matched a stolen vehicle of the same color and make. This match caused the squad car’s computer to send an automatic message to other police units, informing them that Edwards had found a stolen vehicle.
“Edwards exited his cruiser, drew his service pistol and ordered Tolan and Cooper to the ground. He accused Tolan and Cooper of having stolen the car. Cooper responded, ‘That’s not true.’ And Tolan explained, ‘That’s my car.’ Tolan then complied with the officer’s demand to lie face-down on the home’s front porch.
“As it turned out, Tolan and Cooper were at the home where Tolan lived with his parents. Hearing the commotion, Tolan’s parents exited the front door in their pajamas. In an attempt to keep the misunderstanding from escalating into something more, Tolan’s father instructed Cooper to lie down, and instructed Tolan and Cooper to say nothing. Tolan and Cooper then remained facedown.
“Edwards told Tolan’s parents that he believed Tolan and Cooper had stolen the vehicle. In response, Tolan’s father identified Tolan as his son, and Tolan’s mother explained that the vehicle belonged to the family and that no crime had been committed. Tolan’s father explained, with his hands in the air, ‘[T]his is my nephew. This is my son. We live here. This is my house.’ Tolan’s mother similarly offered, ‘S]ir this is a big mistake. This car is not stolen. . . . That’s our car.’
“While Tolan and Cooper continued to lie on the ground in silence, Edwards radioed for assistance. Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton arrived on the scene and drew his pistol. Edwards told Cotton that Cooper and Tolan had exited a stolen vehicle. Tolan’s mother reiterated that she and her husband owned both the car Tolan had been driving and the home where these events were unfolding. Cotton then ordered her to stand against the family’s garage door. In response to Cotton’s order, Tolan’s mother asked, ‘[A]re you kidding me? We’ve lived her[e] 15 years. We’ve never had anything like this happen before.’
“The parties disagree as to what happened next. Tolan’s mother and Cooper testified during Cotton’s criminal trial that Cotton grabbed her arm and slammed her against the garage door with such force that she fell to the ground. Tolan similarly testified that Cotton pushed his mother against the garage door. In addition, Tolan offered testimony from his mother and photographic evidence to demonstrate that Cotton used enough force to leave bruises on her arms and back that lasted for days. By contrast, Cotton testified in his deposition that when he was escorting the mother to the garage, she flipped her arm up and told him to get his hands off her. He also testified that he did not know whether he left bruises but believed that he had not.
“The parties also dispute the manner in which Tolan responded. Tolan testified in his deposition and during the criminal trial that upon seeing his mother being pushed, he rose to his knees. Edwards and Cotton testified that Tolan rose to his feet. “Both parties agree that Tolan then exclaimed, from roughly 15 to 20 feet away, ‘[G]et your fucking hands off my mom.’ The parties also agree that Cotton then drew his pistol and fired three shots at Tolan. Tolan and his mother testified that these shots came with no verbal warning. One of the bullets entered Tolan’s chest, collapsing his right lung and piercing his liver.
While Tolan survived, he suffered a life-altering injury that disrupted his budding professional baseball career and causes him to experience pain on a daily basis.”
Cotton was indicted by a Harris County grand jury in connection with the shooting incident. In May 2009, Tolan, his parents, and cousin all filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit against Cotton, Edwards, and the City of Bellaire in federal court in Houston. Tolan claimed excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. While discovery was being conducted in the federal lawsuit, Cotton was put to trial in May 2010 on the criminal charges, and to the outrage of local African-American leaders, a jury of ten whites and two African-American women found the officer not guilty.
This outrage was given additional fuel in March 2013 when the local federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of Cotton, finding that the officer’s use of force was not “unreasonable” and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In a rare expedited decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals less than a month later upheld the district court’s ruling but for different reasons.
The three-judge panel—consisting of Judges Edith Jones (who is currently under an ethics investigation per orders of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for incendiary racial comments made in a public speech last year), Leslie Southwick and Rhesa Barksdale—made egregious errors in its interpretation of the facts of the case; all in favor of Officer Cotton.
After saying the appeals court failed to “view the evidence” in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (Tolan) in a summary judgment proceeding, which is the law based on Supreme Court precedents, the court pointed to four instances where the Fifth Circuit “improperly weighed the evidence” in favor of Officer Cotton. It was nothing short of the nation’s highest court giving a lower appeals court a clinic in the law on summary judgment—something that most surely flushed the faces of the three-judge panel with embarrassment, if not humility. The Supreme Court summed up its rebuke of the appeals court this way:
“Considered together, these facts lead to the inescapable conclusion that the court below credited the evidence of the party seeking summary judgment and failed properly to acknowledge key evidence offered by the party opposing that motion. And while ’this Court is not equipped to correct every perceived error coming from the lower federal courts,’ we intervene here because the opinion below reflects a clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards in light of our precedents.
“The witnesses on both sides come to this case with their own perceptions, recollections, and even potential biases. It is in part for that reason that genuine disputes are generally resolved by juries in our adversarial system. By weighing the evidence and reaching factual inferences contrary to Tolan’s competent evidence, the court below neglected to adhere to the fundamental principle that at the summary judgment stage, reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party.
“Applying that principle here, the court should have acknowledged and credited Tolan’s evidence with regard to the lighting, his mother’s demeanor, whether he shouted words that were an overt threat, and his positioning during the shooting. This is not to say, of course, that these are the only facts that the Fifth Circuit should consider, or that no other facts might contribute to the reasonableness of the officer’s actions as a matter of law. Nor do we express a view as to whether Cotton’s actions violated clearly established law. We instead vacate the Fifth Circuit’s judgment so that the court can determine whether, when Tolan’s evidence is properly credited and factual inferences are reasonably drawn in his favor, Cotton’s actions violated clearly established law.”
We applaud the Supreme Court decision. It reaffirms time-honored jurisprudence that every person should have his/her day in court. Robert Tolan certainly deserves the opportunity to make his case.