Edwards had triggered the stolen-car report by typing the wrong license plate number into the computer.
Edwards drew his pistol and ordered Robbie and his friend down on their bellies. Bobby Tolan and his wife, Marian, came onto the porch in their pajamas. Robbie’s father told Edwards the car was his; the officer ignored him. He also urged their son and his friend to remain compliant; Robbie’s mother, Marian, however, began to complain about the police entering their property and threatening her son.
Unfortunately, at this point “help” arrived in the person of Bellaire Police Sergeant Jeffrey Wayne Cotton. Without hesitation, he slammed Mrs. Tolan against her garage door (bruises persisted for days). When Robbie, 15 to 20 feet away, rose to his knees and said, “Get your fucking hands off my mom!” Sergeant Cotton shot him three times.
He had been on the scene 32 seconds.
Robbie lived, but he reports persistent pain, and his professional baseball career is almost certainly over.
Local district attorneys must work with police, and they are reluctant to move against them except in extreme cases. But even by Texas standards, Cotton’s behavior was so egregious that the local state prosecutor brought criminal charges against him. Cotton was acquitted, but the indictment itself spoke volumes.
Two federal courts, however—the U.S. District Courts for the Southern District of Texas and the Fifth Circuit—decided the case wasn’t even worth listening to. There would be no trial, no jury, no real finding of fact.
The federal courts’ decision was based on special rules of civil-rights litigation. When a government official violates a citizens’ rights, federal statutes allow the citizens to bring a federal lawsuit. The most important, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is the basis of the Tolan case. It provides a civil action against any person who deprives another of any legal or constitutional right “under color of” law.
But individuals—prisoners, defendants, “sovereign citizens,” and just people who have had a bad encounter with a cop—like to sue law enforcement, especially since, if they win, the government will pay their legal fees. To prevent baseless suits, the Supreme Court evolved a doctrine called “qualified immunity.” Government officials are presumed to be immune from suit for their official acts. Unless the plaintiffs can allege facts that, if true, would violate “clearly established” rights, official defendants are entitled to immediate dismissal.
So, for example, if a cop arrests me, grabs the key to my house, drives there, and uses the key to search without a warrant, I can sue for damages, because any reasonable officer would know the Fourth Amendment forbids that. If, on the other hand, a cop arrests me, grabs my cellphone, and searches my call log, I probably can’t sue, because that issue hasn’t been resolved.