WASHINGTON (CN) - Police officers who shot a young, unarmed black man on his porch, in the mistaken belief that he stole a car, were improperly granted immunity, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The injuries Robert Tolan sustained on Dec. 30, 2008, ended his career as an aspiring professional baseball player. Tolan's father, Bobby, spent over a decade in Major League Baseball, debuting with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965.
The specter of celebrity and racial profiling made the incident national news.
Tolan had been driving home at 1:50 a.m. that morning, with police in the affluent Houston community of Bellaire on high alert because of 12 recent car thefts.
He parked his Nissan SUV at the home he shared with his parents, and got out of the vehicle with his cousin, Anthony Cooper.
Officer John Edwards been tailing them and typed the Nissan's license plate into his police car's computer. He typed one digit in wrong, however, and the vehicle came back stolen.
Edwards approached the pair with a flashlight and his gun drawn.
Though Tolan and Cooper initially ignored Edwards' demands to go the ground, Tolan's parents, Bobby and Marian, came outside, saw what was going on, and told them to shut up and lie down.
Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton had responded to Edwards' call for backup by this point. He saw Edwards standing in the Tolans' front yard with his gun drawn, and there is a dispute as to whether Marian was agitated or calm in trying to diffuse the matter.
Cotton drew his gun and approached Edwards, who told him the two car-burglary suspects were on the ground.
Cotton then grabbed Marian by the arm and moved her toward the garage. Her son, Robert, who was lying on the porch facing the home, yelled, "Get your fucking hands off my mom," and began to turn and get up.
The sergeant then pushed Marion against the garage door and quickly fired three shots at Robert, one of which punctured his lung and lodged in his liver.
The Tolans and Cooper sued
the city of Bellaire, Edwards and Cotton in May 2009 for excessive force and violations of the 14th and Fourth Amendment. A jury acquitted Cotton of criminal charges for the shooting in May 2010.
In the civil case, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon awarded
the officers immunity in 2012.
The 5th Circuit affirmed, but the Supreme Court summarily vacated that decision Monday, saying the appellate panel had "failed to view the evidence at summary judgment in the light most favorable to Tolan with respect to the central facts of this case."
"By failing to credit evidence that contradicted some of its key factual conclusions, the court improperly 'weigh[ed] the evidence' and resolved disputed issues in favor of the moving party," the unsigned decision states.
Though the parties dispute how well lit the yard was on the night of the shooting, the lower court here credited the wrong party in calling the porch dimly lit.
The same thing happened in crediting the officers' testimony about the supposed threat to the officers presented by Tolan's mother.
As for Tolan's demand that the officer unhand his mother, the justices said "a jury could reasonably infer that his words, in context, did not amount to a statement of intent to inflict harm."
"Tolan's mother testified in Cotton's criminal trial that he slammed her against a garage doorwith enough force to cause bruising that lasted for days," the 11-page opinion states. "A jury could well have concluded that a reasonable officer would have heard Tolan's words not as a threat, but as a son's plea not to continue any assault of his mother."
Lastly the appellate ruling credited the officers' claim that Tolan got to his feet, though Tolan and his mother said he was on his knees.
"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," the justices added.
"The witnesses on both sides come to this case with their own perceptions, recollections, and even potential biases," they added. "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."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, noted "that the granting of review in this case sets a precedent that, if followed in other cases, will very substantially alter the court's practice."
"In my experience, a substantial percentage of the civil appeals heard each year by the courts of appeals present the question whether the evidence in the summary judgment record is just enough or not quite enough to support a grant of summary judgment," Alito added. "The present case falls into that very large category. There is no confusion in the courts of appeals about the standard to be applied in ruling on a summary judgment motion, and the Court of Appeals invoked the correct standard here. Thus, the only issue is whether the relevant evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is sufficient to support a judgment for that party. In the courts of appeals, cases presenting this question are utterly routine. There is no question that this case is important for the parties, but the same is true for a great many other cases that fall into the same category.
"On the merits of the case, while I do not necessarily agree in all respects with the Court's characterization of the evidence, I agree that there are genuine issues of material fact and that this is a case in which summary judgment should not have been granted.
"I therefore concur in the judgment."