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How qualified immunity affected an Alabama man shot five times during a police sting

Eddie Burkhalter

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Trinell King was driving his girlfriend’s car to give an acquaintance, Donavan Brown, a ride when a Warrior Police Department officer pulled him over because the car didn’t have a license plate.

King, who is Black, didn’t have proof of insurance or a driver’s license that September day in 2015, but gave the officer a photo ID.

Brown — on the other hand — gave a false name, and while the officer was back at his police vehicle, King told Brown to be honest with the officer, according to court records in a case over the incident. Brown told King that he had outstanding warrants and a gun. He was going to run.

Brown got out of the car and ran, and the officer ordered King out at gunpoint, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the police car. King fully cooperated and told the officer that Brown had a gun. Even the responding officers, in court depositions, agreed that King fully cooperated.

Soon, King was surrounded by numerous white officers, one of whom testified in a deposition that King was “extremely cooperative from the beginning” and “willing to give [them] any information without having to really ask.”

King’s only crime was driving without insurance or a license, not something Warrior police usually arrest someone for, officers said in depositions, but he remained handcuffed while officers tried to coerce him into helping capture the armed man who’d ran from the scene.

“F— him [i.e. meaning King], you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw — we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f—ing us over, we’ll f— over you,” King said an officer told him, while testifying in a deposition.

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Officers repeatedly threatened King that they would “f—” him “over” if he didn’t help.

King said he was “nervous” and “scared” — that he “felt threatened.” He believed his “life was in danger,” according to court records, and after nearly two hours of coercion, he agreed to take part in a dangerous sting operation to capture Brown. Police officers in depositions disputed that they coerced King into helping them with the sting operation, and said it was his idea to do so, according to those records.

“With the negotiation, the threats, everything they was telling me, if I don’t cooperate they’re going to throw some charges on me, and they going to f— me over. So in the streets that means it could mean anything. It can mean being shot. It can mean being anything. My life —,” King said in a deposition.

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Going along with the plan, an officer called Brown and put a cell phone to King’s ear while he was handcuffed. King told Brown what he was told to say: that police had let him go. He could come and pick Brown up. Police told King to drive his girlfriend’s car, pick up Brown and that they’d pull him over again.

Once again, an officer told King “if you f— over us, we’re going to f— over you,” according to the court documents.

Once King picked up Brown, the officers decided to pull him over before they had discussed, Brown pulled his gun and told King he “had” to shoot the officers, according to court records.

“King could not stop the car before Brown started shooting, and the officers returned fire,” King’s attorneys wrote in a court filing.

King, who wasn’t given a bullet-proof vest, was struck by bullets five times, and there were 20 bullet holes in the car. Brown was shot 13 times, but remarkably both survived. One officer was shot but was protected by a vest. King underwent multiple surgeries, but lost the use of one arm.

King’s case is an Alabama example of how the legal doctrine of qualified immunity prevents some who’ve been harmed by the actions of law enforcement from seeking relief from courts. Qualified immunity, a controversial doctrine established by Supreme Court precedent, protects government officials who have been sued in their individual capacity, unless their actions violate established legal precedent.

King sued, but a U.S. District Court judge in 2017 dismissed the case before it even went to trial on grounds of qualified immunity, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a June 5 ruling also found that the officers were protected by qualified immunity.

[What is qualified immunity?]

Despite the courts’ rulings, witnesses testified that the officers’ actions were improper.

Daniel Busken, a retired police chief and law enforcement consultant, testified in a deposition as a witness for King that the officers should have known they were putting King’s life at risk.

Busken said that the police “knew, or should have known, that their plan to force Mr. King to assist in their capture of Brown represented a significant danger to Mr. King’s safety … and an unpredictable situation for Mr. King,” because Brown “was a desperate man in a desperate situation that had showed how desperate he was.”

Another officer testified in a deposition that he was unaware of any plan to protect King’s life, or if the department had ever conducted such a sting before.

“Nevertheless, Defendants planned to have five vehicles and seven armed officers — all of whom planned to draw their guns on Brown — involved in the sting,” King’s attorneys wrote in an appeal.

The judges ruled that King could not bring his case before a jury to decide whether the officers should be held accountable for nearly costing him his life — not because his case lacked merit but because of the controversial legal doctrine of qualified immunity

Attorneys for King have appealed the 11th circuit panel’s ruling to the full 11th circuit court, and are asking all the circuit judges to reconsider, and to allow the case to go before a jury.

The attorneys argue that the officers violated his Constitutional protections. The June 5 ruling came at the peak of tensions between peaceful protestors and police, some of whom responded with tear gas and so-called rubber bullets.

The judges,  in their opinion, wrote that “even taking King’s testimony as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, there is no evidence that the officers threatened him with false charges” — because the officer’s didn’t say what he might be charged with if he didn’t go along with their plan.

“As for the alleged threats of physical violence, the evidence is similarly thin,” the judge’s wrote. “If the officers had told King ‘help us, or we’re going to f–k you up’ (or something like that) then King would have a more compelling argument. But that isn’t what he said they said.”

“Instead, King testified that the officers told him “[if] you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw—we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f–king us over, we’ll f–k over you. I don’t know where you get your car back,” the judges wrote.

King’s attorneys in the appeal to the full 11th circuit argue that the case should be heard by a jury of King’s peers, and that the all-white judges on the panel are “good people with good intentions” but that they are out-of-touch with “the common experiences of the people, especially Black Americans, and the reasonable inferences that they would draw from the totality of the evidence presented.”

“Suffice it to state that Black and other Americans of color, and a significant amount of White and other Americans, would come to a different conclusion than the panel, based on their different life experiences, which is the reason why the Founders insisted that the Seventh Amendment require trial by jury, and not by a panel of judges who do not have the same life experiences,” King’s attorneys wrote.

King told APR that he was left without a choice, forced to risk his life in a bid to help the officers, with whom he cooperated from the start.

“I can’t believe that the courts have given the officers who made me help them catch their suspect immunity after they forced me to go along with their plan to trap him. They knew he was armed and dangerous. They put on their bullet proof vests while I waited, and they made me go pick him up with no protection at all,” King said in a statement. “I had done everything I could to cooperate and even told them his name, that he had a gun and had warrants on him, but then they forced me to help them catch him.”

“I didn’t have any choice because they made it clear that if I didn’t go along with their plan they were going to hurt me,” King continued. “There was no doubt about that. I was one Black man surrounded by all these white cops who were threatening me. How can judges sit there and say what a jury would think about that?”

Spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, protestors and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for an end to qualified immunity, which they say allows police to escape responsibility for harming the public.

On June 19, in a tribute to Juneteenth, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a series of law enforcement reform bills, included among them an avenue for Coloradans to sue police in state court if their rights have been violated. The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act states that “qualified immunity is not a defense to liability.”

Colorado is the first state to pass such legislation barring qualified immunity as protection for officials, but the state law can’t stop such officials from claiming qualified immunity if a case is brought before a federal court instead of a state court.

That could change, if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such protections, but earlier this month, the Supreme Court passed up a chance to rule on the matter.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967  Pierson v. Ray case that established qualified immunity as a doctrine as a protection against frivolous lawsuits, and over the years, courts have expanded the protection, and the doctrine still has its supporters.

Democrats have pushed for broad police reforms in the wake of Floyd’s homicide, including an end to qualified immunity, but many Republicans argue that doing so would result in frivolous lawsuits and discourage people from becoming law enforcement officers.

The U.S. House of Representatives on June 25 passed a series of policing reforms in a largely party-line vote, but the Trump administration is threatening a veto, and the measure has little support among Republican lawmakers, just three of whom broke ranks and voted for the House bill.

Democrats opposed a GOP proposal in the U.S. Senate, and said the bill didn’t go far enough, effectively stalling that bill and leaving the matter in limbo as protests against police brutality continue across much of the country.

Birmingham attorney Rip Andrews, one of King’s attorneys, told APR in a statement that he hopes the full 11th circuit considers the case in the current context.

“Qualified immunity has so far kept Trinell from having his day in court in front a jury. Win or lose — a day supposedly guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment,” Andrews said. “His only chance now is the hope that the full Eleventh Circuit reads his story in the context of our time and agrees to hear his appeal.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Lilly Ledbetter speaks about her friendship with Ginsburg

Micah Danney

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Lilly Ledbetter spoke during a virtual campaign event with Sen. Doug Jones on Sept. 21.

When anti-pay-discrimination icon and activist Lilly Ledbetter started receiving mail from late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ledbetter’s attorney told her to save the envelopes. That’s how unusual it is to get personal mail from a member of the nation’s highest court.

Ledbetter, 82, of Jacksonville, Alabama, shared her memories of her contact with Ginsburg over the last decade during a Facebook live event hosted by Sen. Doug Jones on Monday.

Ginsburg famously read her dissent from the bench, a rare occurrence, in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 to affirm a lower court’s decision that Ledbetter was not owed damages for pay discrimination because her suit was not filed within 180 days of the setting of the policy that led to her paychecks being less than those of her male colleagues. 

Ledbetter said that Ginsburg “gave me the dignity” of publicly affirming the righteousness of Ledbetter’s case, demonstrating an attention to the details of the suit.

Ginsburg challenged Congress to take action to prevent similar plaintiffs from being denied compensation due to a statute of limitations that can run out before an employee discovers they are being discriminated against. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It resets the statute of limitation’s clock with each paycheck that is reduced by a discriminatory policy.

Ledbetter said that her heart was heavy when she learned of Ginsburg’s death on Friday. The women kept in touch after they met in 2010. That was shortly after the death of Ginsburg’s husband, tax attorney Marty Ginsburg. She spoke about her pain to Ledbetter, whose husband Charles had died two years before.

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“So we both shared that, and we shared a tear,” said Ledbetter.

Ginsburg invited her to her Supreme Court chambers to see a framed copy of the act, next to which hung a pen that Obama used to sign it.

Ginsburg later sent Ledbetter a signed copy of a cookbook honoring her husband that was published by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Included with it was a personal note, as was the case with other pieces of correspondence from the justice that Ledbetter received at her home in Alabama. They were often brochures and other written materials that Ginsburg received that featured photos of both women.

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Ledbetter expressed her support for Jones in his race against GOP challenger Tommy Tuberville. The filling of Ginsburg’s seat is a major factor in that, she said.

“I do have to talk from my heart, because I am scared to death for the few years that I have yet to live because this country is not headed in the right direction,” she said.

She noted that Ginsburg was 60 when she was appointed to the court. Ledbetter said that she opposes any nominee who is younger than 55 because they would not have the experience and breadth of legal knowledge required to properly serve on the Supreme Court.

She said that issues like hers have long-term consequences that are made even more evident by the financial strains resulting from the pandemic, as she would have more retirement savings had she been paid what her male colleagues were.

Jones called Ledbetter a friend and hero of his.

“I’ve been saying to folks lately, if those folks at Goodyear had only done the right thing by Lilly Ledbetter and the women that worked there, maybe they’d still be operating in Gadsden these days,” he said.

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Justice Ginsburg’s death will supercharge a heated 2020 campaign

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

Brandon Moseley

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President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, are running for president in 2020. (STAFF SGT. TONY HARP/AIR NATIONAL GUARD AND GAGE SKIDMORE/FLIKR)

Just hours after the death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, conservatives, including the Alabama-based Foundation for Moral Law, said Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to reverse the ideological trend of the nation’s highest court.

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

The controversy over when and how to confirm a new justice will likely supercharge an already heated 2020 election campaign. Trump was at a campaign rally on Friday night when he learned about the justice’s death from reporters.

“Just died? Wow, I did not know that,” Trump said. “She was an amazing woman. Whether you agreed or not she led an amazing life. She was an amazing woman. I am sad to hear that.”

Ginsburg, since her appointment by President Bill Clinton, has been bastion of the court’s more liberal wing. The court was divided with four “liberal” justices led by Ginsburg and four “conservative” justices led by Samuel Alito.

Chief Justice John Roberts, though appointed by President George W. Bush, has been the swing vote on a number of major issues since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018. Her death gives Trump the opportunity to appoint her replacement and potentially shape the direction of the court for decades to come.

Conservatives want Trump to select the nominee and the current GOP-controlled Senate to confirm the Trump appointee.

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The Foundation for Moral Law — a conservative legal group founded by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — released a statement saying that Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to move the court in a more conservative direction.

“For many years United States Supreme Court has been a bastion for liberal anti-God ideology,” Moore said. “The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be an opportunity to reverse this trend. I’m hopeful that President Trump will immediately nominate a true conservative who understands that our rights come from God and no authority in this country can take those rights from us.”

“This is a very critical time for our country and our future and the future of our posterity depends upon our vigilance and direction,” Moore said.

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Judicial Watch, another conservative legal group, echoed Moore’s statement.

“Judicial Watch sends it condolences to the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had a wonderful judicial temperament that will always be remembered,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “President Trump now has a historic opportunity to nominate yet another constitutional conservative who will honor the Constitution and the rule of law across the full spectrum of constitutional issues.”

“And the U.S. Senate should move quickly to work with President Trump to consider and approve a new justice who will faithfully apply the U.S. Constitution,” Fitton said. “There is no reason we cannot have a new justice by Election Day.”

Trump is expected to put forth a nominee to fill Ginsburg’s seat in the coming days, according to ABC News.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, wrote in a statement that, “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

But Democratic senators and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, disagree.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” Schumer wrote on social media Friday, parroting a similar quote McConnell used in 2016 when he refused to give then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, hearings and a vote for confirmation to the court. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Republicans in the Senate blocked Obama from selecting Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. Scalia was the most conservative jurist on the court.

Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and voter protections, and she played a major role in upholding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights. She also voted in favor of same-sex marriage and to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Most political observers expect Trump to appoint a woman to fill Ginsburg’s spot. Political insiders have suggested that Trump believes that appointing a woman to the court could help him with woman, a key swing demographic that will likely decide the next election.

Will the Senate confirm Trump’s appointment before the election or wait until after the public votes? If Republicans lose control of the Senate, could a lame duck GOP majority select the direction of the court on their way out?

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones has been widely criticized for his vote against the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. If the vote comes before the Nov. 3 election, Jones’s decision on whether to confirm Trump’s appointee will be heavily scrutinized.

The questions about the Supreme Court is likely to only further inflame passions on both sides this election cycle.

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Judge dismisses former Drummond exec’s lawsuit against Balch and Bingham

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Balch & Bingham law firm filed by a former coal executive who claimed the law firm’s poor legal advice resulted in his conviction on federal bribery charges. 

Judge Tamara Harris Johnson ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on former Drummond Coal vice president David Roberson’s $50 million lawsuit against Balch and his former employer, Drummond.

The suit claimed that Balch attorneys, primarily Joel Gilbert, who was also convicted of federal bribery charges, assured Roberson that a plan to recruit then-State Rep. Oliver Robinson to use his office to thwart efforts by the EPA to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham was legal.

Johnson’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit against Balch didn’t dispute Roberson’s claims but said that under the Alabama Legal Service Liability Action statute, Roberson should have filed his claim no later than November 2018. He filed it in March 2019. 

“All claims against defendant Balch & Bingham are barred by the statute of limitations,” Johnson wrote. 

Johnson said a motion to dismiss filed by Drummond will be addressed separately at a later date. 

Roberson and Gilbert were the only two executives found guilty by a jury in October 2018 in the well-publicized federal case that saw Robinson plead guilty and go to prison for accepting bribes. 

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Roberson maintained his innocence throughout, saying he relied on the advice and counsel of Gilbert and others at Balch. During the sentencing phase, U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon said he was moved by Roberson’s history and the character witnesses who testified on his behalf, and the judge said he found Roberson to be less culpable than Gilbert because he relied on Gilbert’s legal advice. 

Gilbert was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Robinson was sentenced to two and a half years.

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Trial begins in lawsuit challenging state’s COVID-19 election rules

Micah Danney

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(ALABAMAVOTES.GOV/APR GRAPHIC)

A virtual trial opened on Tuesday in a lawsuit charging that Alabama’s requirements of witnesses and photo ID for absentee ballots and a “de facto ban” on curbside voting are unconstitutional.

The suit, People First v. Merrill, was filed on May 1 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the American Civil Liberties Union against Secretary of State John Merrill.

Merrill has touted the rules for the election in November as guaranteeing “a higher degree of credibility than ever before in the history of the state.”

The SPLC said that while Merrill did permit any eligible voter to apply for an absentee ballot by claiming “physical illness or infirmity,” the witness and ID absentee requirements should be waived and the curbside voting ban lifted because they present unfair obstacles to plaintiffs’ ability to vote.

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