Police, The Fourth Amendment, Qualified Immunity

Heightentened Pleading Standards Exacerbates Dead Men Tell No Tales Problem

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Case:  MIGHTY v. Miami-Dade County, Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit 2016

What happened:  Police approached a man walking up to his parents’ house thinking he was going to rob the place.  The man was not armed.  There was a confrontation of some sort which ended up with one, or perhaps more, police officers shooting the man to death, including one shot in the back.  Beyond this the Miami-Dade Police Department will not say any more about the shooting.  The man’s mother decided to sue, but she has no additional information beyond what the Miami-Dade Police Department has said, which is very little and certainly nothing that affirmatively indicates that the police should not have shot this particular man.

Disclaimer:  The comments below are intended for hardcore legal junkies only (although you don’t have to be a lawyer).  Read no further if the law bores you!

Comments:  In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court heightened “pleading standards” for civil suits brought under federal law.  This means that you, if you will imagine yourself as a plaintiff, must have more info than was previously required to “avoid dismissal” of a complaint.  This can be a good thing because it helps nip meritless law suits in the bud.  However, this can be a bad thing in cases where the defendant party that you are suing has exclusive access to the witnesses and information that you need to prove your case.  In the case linked above, this downside is pretty dramatic.  The dead man is dead so he cannot say whether he posed a real threat to police at the time he began to be struck by their bullets.  The only witnesses are police.  There is likely a lot of “documentary”evidence in the form of radio transmissions, dashcam footage, use of force reports, incident investigations and the like — but, the problem is that any and all of this juicy potential evidence is under control of the Miami-Dade Police Department.  The dead man’s mother, therefore, needs “discovery” to get her hands on this evidence to prove her contention that the police were out of line in shooting her son multiple times until he was dead.  The catch-22 here is that she can’t get “discovery” if her suit is “dismissed” at its inception due to the “heightened pleading standards” now operative on her federal claims (brought under a federal law called 42 U.S.C. section 1983, as with most federal civil suits against police officers).

In this case, both the district court and the appeals court* decided that the mother’s lawsuit could go forward, or, more precisely, “avoid dismissal.”  This means that the mother, as plaintiff, will get some discovery and thereby force the Miami-Dade Police Department to say more than it has so far.  This seems like the right result.  It seems inconceivable that the police could kill somebody and not need to explain, ever, in any meaningful way.  Still, the result does not seem consistent with the “heightened pleading standards,” at least as they are applied in less dramatic cases.  More specifically, the appellate court decision linked above makes much of the fact that one of the bullets was in the back — but — does that mean that the mother’s lawsuit would be dismissed if all the bullets happened to be in the man’s front?  That seems, to me, a pretty fine fact distinction upon which to base a decision as to whether a lawsuit like this one survives its gestation.

My proposal:  I wish courts would do more to make sure that an exception to “heightened pleading standards” develops for cases where all the evidence is likely to be in possession of the defendant(s).  This would have been a great case for doing so.  I can’t help but believe that it is the real, but unspoken, reason as to why the Eleventh Circuit appellate court panel of judges ruled as they did in this case, allowing the mother’s suit to proceed at least until she gets her hands on some of the data that the police have been hiding.



* It is very odd that an appellate court would ever review a district court denial of a defendant’s dismissal motion, but that is one of those weird quirks of “qualified immunity” law, of which there are many.

Written by Burgers Allday

August 18, 2016 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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