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Police officers found liable for excessive force in SWAT raid

This week, the city of Lakewood and its police chief announced their intentions to appeal a $15 million verdict awarded last summer to the family of Leonard Thomas, a thirty-year-old, unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a SWAT team sniper during a stand-off at his home.

As horrific as it is anytime a police officer shoots an unarmed person, the facts surrounding this case were especially tragic, as Mr. Thomas was killed while holding his four-year-old son in his arms. At trial, the officers tried out several defenses, ranging from claims that Mr. Thomas was holding his son hostage or using him as a “human shield,” to arguing that, as police officers performing their duties, they were immune from being sued by the Thomas family.

The jury, however, rejected these claims, finding that the police engaged in numerous unlawful acts, including engaging in an unreasonable seizure, using excessive force, unreasonably killing the Thomas family’s dog, and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. The verdict also included $6.5 million in punitive damages levied against the individual officers involved.

The defendants’ notice of their appeal means the Thomas family will have to wait a bit longer to achieve justice for Leonard. The appeal may also affect future cases of police brutality and excessive force.

Shortly after the trial, and before they announced their intentions to appeal, the defendants’ filed several “post-trial motions,” requesting that the Court either: set aside the verdict and find that the defendants were not liable, reduce the amount of the verdict, find the officer’s immune from liability, or, if those options failed, order a new trial.

The Court recently denied those requests in an order upholding the validity of the verdict. It was this order that prompted the defendants to file their notice to appeal a few days later, and the order reflects some of the legal arguments that the defendants are likely to raise on appeal.

In its order, the Court used uncommonly strong language in upholding the jury’s verdict under federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Court took exception to the defendants’ argument that the verdict was not legally sound because the jury, which was entirely white, may have been improperly motivated by what their peers and community might think if they acquitted white police officers who killed an unarmed black man.

The Court slammed this argument, criticizing the defendants for making this assertion “without any evidence—without any factual foundation whatsoever,” and calling it “insulting to our constitutional order.” The court noted the irony of arguing that the victims race made his case more sympathetic to the jury, as juries have generally been less favorable to black litigants throughout American history. Besides, the court observed, even if jury’s verdict was influenced by the tragic circumstances of Mr. Thomas’s killing, “the law is not so cold and callous as to forbid an emotional reckoning with this suffering. The jury need not have—and could not have—avoided the manner and magnitude of the Thomas family’s loss.”

The Court also upheld the jury’s award of punitive damages against the defendants’ claims that there was no evidence that could support punitive damages, holding that the use of force and the way the defendants escalated the situation revealed “malice, recklessness, or callous indifference” to Mr. Thomas’s life. And neither were the defendants entitled to a new trial because the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the officers did not value Mr. Thomas’s life as a black man. This, the Court held, was not prejudicial to the jury, as “these statements represented Plaintiffs’ legitimate effort to refute what they perceived as Defendants’ attempt to diminish the worth of Leonard’s life by highlighting negative aspects of his background.” All the Plaintiffs did was suggest “to a jury that the decedent’s life mattered.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for future excessive force cases, the court denied the officers’ claims that they were immune from liability while acting in their official capacity as law enforcement officers. While this “official immunity” protects officers from most lawsuits, the Court stressed that “the shooting of Leonard could only be justified if Leonard posed an immediate threat to the safety of officers or to others. This disputed fact required a jury trial, and the jury supplied a unanimous answer: No he did not.” Since the jury found that the officers engaged in conduct that so clearly violated Mr. Thomas’s rights, the Court held they were not immune from being sued.

As we follow this case through the appeals process, the officers are sure to raise the issue of official immunity again. It’s worth paying attention to how the Court of Appeals responds to their arguments, because official immunity has been frequently been raised in an attempt to shield officers from excessive force lawsuits.

Police officers generally have immunity from lawsuits like this unless they violate rights that were “clearly established” under the Constitution. While this defense was meant to protect officers from frivolous lawsuits, the defense has become “one of the most impenetrable barriers” for victims trying to recover from an officer’s use of excessive force.

Our firm has won cases where police officers have violated the constitutional rights of our clients. We have defeated claims of immunity in court and on appeal. While these cases can be difficult, complex and time-consuming, we feel that it is important to pursue people like these Lakewood officers who use excessive force. It’s the most effective way to protect our constitutional rights and, hopefully, change the attitudes and actions of some police officers and departments.