Friday, April 06, 2012

Database errors and the consequences of qualified immunity

In a post titled "Qualified Immunity Strikes Again," Radley Balko describes a case out of Bellaire, TX that wraps together several themes which arise on this blog with some frequency, including the sweeping scope of "qualified" immunity for police officers and database errors (in this case, a user error) leading to unjust and tragic results:
Cop runs license check on a suspicious vehicle. Although they apparently committed no traffic violation, cop insists that his decision to run a check had nothing to do with the fact that the occupants were black, and happened to be driving in an affluent, predominately white neighborhood. The cop’s partner apparently then enters the wrong license number, which returns a car that had been reported stolen. So cop follows car into driveway, which happens to be the home of the driver’s parents, where he lives. Cop approaches driver and occupant with his gun drawn. Driver’s parents come out to see what’s causing the commotion. Cop roughs up driver’s mother. Driver gets up from ground to tell cop to lay off of his mother. Cop shoots driver, a full 32 seconds after pulling into the driveway.

The driver, who was unarmed, will now carry a bullet in his liver for the rest of his life. The cop was charged with first degree aggravated assault. A jury acquitted him. Now this week, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon dismissed the driver’s lawsuit against both the cop that fired his gun and the cop who entered the wrong license plate number, citing qualified immunity. According to Harmon, the officer acted “reasonably,” and moreover, wrongly accusing an unarmed man of stealing a car, pointing a gun at him, then shooting him in the liver, “did not violate [his] constitutional rights.”

Both cops are back on the force. The guy with the bullet in his liver? Tough luck. He’ll be paying his own medical bills.
Two thoughts: First, if George Zimmerman had a badge and did exactly what he did in Florida, this would be the result. The frustration expressed nationally over Zimmerman's apparent immunity from prosecution repeats itself over and over whenever police shoot unarmed suspects, but in those cases the media usually give much more deference to the shooter (plus, unlike Mr. Zimmerman, police departments have full-time PR departments spinning their side to the press). Qualified immunity shouldn't amount to a license to kill, but as a practical matter that's exactly what it means.

Second, this speaks directly to the issue raised in yesterday's post about civil rights violations as a consequence of database errors. In this case it wasn't bad information in the database but user error that created the problem, but that distinction hardly matters from the perspective of the family whose innocent, unarmed son was first racially profiled then falsely accused then shot in the liver. (The court said there was no evidence of racial profiling, but there's a reason a cop in Bellaire, a wealthy enclave in Harris County, runs the license plate number of a black kid in a nice car driving through the neighborhood, and it's not because that's what he does with everybody.) It's also human error when false information is inputted into (or not removed from) a database, which is part of the problem. Databases no longer merely confirm suspects, as law-enforcement records did in the past; they independently generate them, and not always accurately. This kid didn't do anything to appear suspicious; the database was his only accuser. And when a database error got him shot, existing court precedents say law enforcement cannot be held responsible. That's not right.


Bobby Mcintire said...

Was it ever established that the Bellaire officers could determine the race of the man before he was pulled over? Even during day light hours, get behind someone and tell me you can determine their race in most cases, never mind at night.

In terms of databases, it seems that you are just looking for any excuse to prohibit them since the implied standard is perfection, a goal unattainable even with unlimited resources. While field users may have qualified immunity, their agencies can still be held accountable financially, albeit not usually to the degree some would like (removing the lottery aspects of lawsuits helps minimize the gaming that takes place by those seeking to reap huge payouts versus basic justice).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bobby, I've never once suggested prohibiting databases. You're arguing against a straw man.

As for whether the officer knew their race before the confrontation (it wasn't a traffic stop; he followed them to the kid's home), the Houston Chronicle said the officer "noticed them and ran the license plate of the car they were driving," which sounds to me like he actually took note of the individuals inside.

This was not a traffic stop where he pulled them over for cause and found out their race after the fact.

Anonymous said...

Bobby, that bit of relevant information is not important to the liberal plaintiff's oriented narrative that Grits is trying to spin here. The way he's been trying to advance new theories for lawsuits on his blog here of late, I'm starting to think he's become a lobbyist for the Trial Lawyers Association.

In an unrelated note, an Austin police officer was shot and killed in the line of duty at a local Walmart yesterday. Qualified immunity didnt help him one bit. He left a wife and two young daughters. Think Grits will have any comment on that? Probably not.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:59, This isn't a news blotter. I don't comment on the vast majority of on-the-job police deaths, nor the vast majority of incidents where officers shoot civilians. I try to reserve commentary unless there is a larger public policy aspect to discuss, as in this instance.

Anonymous said...

The "larger public policy aspect" is that sometimes tragic things just happen. Contrary to the trial lawyer narrative, lawsuits rarely undo the harm that occurred. It just enriches the lawyers. Of course, those lawyers support the same liberal Democrats that Grits supports so maybe therein lies the nexus.

rodsmith said...

personaly i think driver and his family have every legal and moral right to now put a bullet into both the keystone cops and this retard judge. Sorry soverign immunity and it's little off shoots are illegal in this country.

GOT TO HAVE A SOVERIGN! before you can have soveign immunity! Last one we had got told to KISS OFF back in the 1700's!

these dumb retards are EMPLOYEES! Sorry NO employee of mine has immunity from ME!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:34, I don't give a crap about Democrats or trial lawyers and certainly receive no money from either group. If police and attorney disciplinary systems worked better, I wouldn't be looking to the civil justice system for redress. But when a profession cannot manage their own business and the result is innocent people are shot or are falsely imprisoned, it is indeed a broader public policy concern.

Anonymous said...

It's true an Austin cop was murdered yesterday at a Walmart, but Austin PD also killed an unarmed black man yesterday at a traffic stop.

Just in case anybody is keeping score.

Anonymous said...

The civil justice system has become a racket exploited by ambulance chasers, litigious inmates and lazy people who think they've won the lottery when they spill McDonalds coffee on themselves! Nope, I don't think more lawsuits are the answer. Thank God the legislature has been reining in these greedy bastards over the last few years!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:28, you're entitled to your opinion, but it carries less weight if you cannot simultaneously identify SOME vehicle for holding accountable prosecutors and police whose neglicence or misconduct costs innocent people their freedom, or even their lives. At some point, self-interested naysaying gets ignored if you refuse to acknowledge others may have legitimate concerns, which is how officialdom routinely responds on these issues.

3:11, thanks for pointing that out. An Austin cop was killed yesterday and an Austin cop killed somebody yesterday. My failure to mention either of those events doesn't mean I devalue the lives of the dead. It just means that at this point I didn't have anything substantive to add to the conversation.

Michael said...

Grits, it frustrates me that your post does not mention the two cops who were involved in the shooting -- Jeff Cotton and John Edwards. In all these cases of police brutality, district attorney malicious prosecution, and prison guard abuse, it's only fitting that the miscreants are as well identified as their victims.

I got the cops' names from the Houston Chronicle. If you have additional sources, you might also tell us whether their tails twist clockwise or counterclockwise.

Penni said...

to Bobby, apparently it is OK for someone to be shot in under a minute after existing a car if the mistake wasn't intentional??? Does it matter if the machine made a mistake or the policeman did? Obviously, both the policemen had choices to make and made bad, shoot first, ask questions is being seen more and more often of late. When these type of cops, who EXIST to PROTECT AND TO SERVE, abuse or mis-use their authority, they should pay the price. Period. Obviously, acquittal, especially acquittal by a judge, rather than a jury of their 'peers' is not basic justice.

to all the anonymous commentators , I cannot believe you guys aren't 'trolls' ....while the shooting of the police officer who was shot in Walmart is also a tragedy, his wife and children will be taken care of , his murder will have 'redress' in either the perpetrator being also killed/executed or where is the 'redress' of harm for the young man shot? Our Constitution and Bill of Rights insure REDRESS in a court of law...don't make light of it or assume that it isn't an important right. You too, may need it someday. and the sorry fact that a lawsuit can rarely undo the harm done, doesn't mean it can't pay the hospital bills and alleviate some of the stresses that occur with traumatic events.

Don't ever think that standing up for yourself and your rights isn't worth it. It is hard, but it is worth it. It isn't your political affiliation that is showing through your scorn, but your own lack of integrity and confidence in knowing when an injustice has occurred and you feel helpless to do anything other than write comments to disguise it. as for the anon who thinks the civil justice system is 'exploited' NO ONE PERSON HAS EXPLOITED THIS COURT ARENA AS MUCH AS THE CORPORATIONS HAVE.. if you're not smart enough to do the research on it, you will just remain another one of the "sheeple" that the corporations have trained and love so well.

As to your favorite spouting off about the case of the woman who was scalded by Mc Donald's coffee
You might want to do a bit of research before you have some knee-jerk reaction about litigation for harm truly shows not only how ignorant you are, but how swayed by propaganda in the press...this woman is a hero to all who stand their ground.

Bobby Mcintire said...

I never said it was okay, only that such mistakes are rare and there was never a shred of credible proof that the officer was racist. The City of Bellaire is still on the hook for what happened, a jury of his peers looking at all the admissible evidence in criminal court finding the individual officer not guilty of misconduct.

Mistakes will happen with any complex function and the city has already instituted policies to reduce the likelihood of this happening again through education/training. Had the man complied with the lawful orders given, he would not have been shot; a major consideration as far as many people are concerned. The cries that Cotton was necessarily racist or they necessarily knew the ethnicity prior to the traffic stop is as yet unsupported, sorry Grits if I refuse to accept the implied status via what a Houston Chronicle wrote as gospel truth.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bobby, if you choose to ignore the only information available to you about Cotton and substitute speculation in its stead, that's your choice. Why stop now, after all?

As for the civil liability question, go listen to the podcast I did with Prof. Jennifer Laurin (or read her related law review article) explaining why your claim Bellaire can still be sued in practice really isn't a viable substitute. She called the argument a "bait and switch" baiting harmed folks with a promise of redress that in practice is denied by the courts at every turn.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Michael, I tend to agree, and in fact with you in mind I usually try to include that. In this case, the names were published in the Chron version, but I thought Balko's summary was better written and more concise, and didn't think to include them. In any event, the Chron's readership is many, many times Grits' so rest assured the names got out there.

Anonymous said...

11:59 - You inadvertently pointed out the central contradiction.

When an innocent party is shot and that party happens to be a police officer, the judicial system rightly moves heaven and earth to see that the shooter suffers a consequence proportional to the act he/she committed. With the support of most of the public.

When an innocent party is shot and that party happens to have been shot by a police officer, the judicial system virtually always closes rank to protect the shooter from any consequence at all. Again with the support of most of the public.

The nature of your post suggests that you consider yourself a strict constitutionalist. I consider myself to be one as well. Please explain to me how the dichotomy described above is consistent with the concept of everybody being equal under the law.

Anonymous said...

"Mistakes will happen with any complex function . . ."

Bobby, you are right, mistakes will happen...

So, if you're wife and family are ever killed by a public official of any kind who just made a mistake...I suppose you would not expect any compensation....mistakes will happen, right?

If you are ever killed by a public official of any kind who just made a mistake...I suppose you would not want your family to be compenssated ... mistakes will happen, right?

Oh, but wait, if it were you or your family you would expect compensation, wouldn't you?

But, then, I'm sure you're thinking that these sorts of things only happen to people who...are in some way, different, inferior to you and that it could never happen to you. But, what if it does, are you willing to apply your own logic - mistakes will happen- and forego compensation for you and your family? Mistakes will happen, right?