Law Geeks’ Corner: Circumstantial evidence and qualified immunity
Two short qualified immunity court opinions from this week demonstrate, in my opinion, a skewed view of what amounts to valid circumstantial evidence of police intent. More specifically, there seems to be a tendency to ignore circumstantial evidence of bad police intent in order to allow the judge to give municipalities that employ police summary judgement of qualified immunity from Monell liability.
There was apparently evidence that police beat a man to death, although Magistrate Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos’ opinion does not go into any detail about what that evidence was. In awarding summary judgement of qualified immunity to the municipality and an individual officer, the opinion finds that there is no evidence of excessive force and no evidence of department policies that lead to the use of excessive force.* I disagree. The beating, in and of itself, and resultant death, in and of itself, s evidence of excessive force. Of course, the police and the government of Corpus Christi should have been given the opportunity to overcome this circumstantial evidence by using countervailing evidence at a civil trial. But, absent an overruling of the magistrate, no trial will happen because the manifest circumstantial evidence of the beating itself was not recognized as circumstantial evidence.
Orlando police officer Jonathan Mills allegedly stuck his finger in plaintiff’s anus and subjected plaintiff to other search related indignities. The opinion denies qualified immunity to Officer Mills. So far, so good. However, the opinion goes on to award sj of qi to Orlando, holding that numerous excessive force complaints against Officer Mills did not amount to evidence Orlando was responsible for what Mills (allegedly) did. Judge Paul G. Byron’s opinion reasoned that these citizen complaints did not amount to circumstantial evidence because the Orlando police department found that all the complaints were false, unfounded, etc. I think this is wrong. There is an obvious fox-guarding-the-henhouse problem here. How is a plaintiff going to prove that Orlando did bad investigations of those complaints when it is the Orlando police has custody of all the evidence of how the citizen complaints were investigated? That is the whole point of circumstantial evidence — it shows things that a plaintiff cannot reasonably be expected to prove with direct evidence. Of course, the police and government of Orlando should have been given the opportunity to overcome this circumstantial evidence at a trial. But, absent a reversal of Judge Byron, this will not happen here.
* Only loosely related, at best, but here is a fascinating Corpus Christi police related case decided this past week.