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Volokh Conspiracy

Of Chris Rock, Cartoons, and Qualified Immunity

A Sixth Circuit panel rejects claims of qualified immunity for officers and Monell immunity for a Cleveland suburb.


Police officers often receive qualified immunity for egregious misconduct, but not always. Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court's award of qualified immunity to officers accused of misconduct, as well as its grant of immunity to the city of Euclid, in part because of how the city trained its officers with inappropriate cartoons and a Chris Rock video. (No joke.)

Here is how Judge John Bush's opinion for the court in Wright v. City of Euclid  begins:

This appeal involves a Chris Rock video and a cartoon, but it is no laughing matter. In fact, this case raises a gravely important issue—police use of force—that has dominated the nation's attention in recent weeks. Lamar Wright, an African American man, brought claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of unconstitutional excessive force, false arrest, malicious prosecution, and municipal liability, along with state-law claims, relating to the actions of certain police officers and other officials employed by the City of Euclid, Ohio.

The police officers, in plain clothes, approached Wright's parked SUV with weapons drawn. Thinking he was about to be robbed, Wright tried to back up the vehicle to get away. A flash of a badge made him realize that the men he thought were about rob him were the police. Wright stopped the SUV, and the officers pulled open the driver's side door. Wright had no weapon, and the officers holstered theirs. Nonetheless, they simultaneously deployed a taser against him and pepper-sprayed him at point-blank range, all while he remained seated in the vehicle. Wright had trouble getting out of the SUV because of a colostomy bag stapled to the right side of his abdomen. He was recovering from a medical operation for diverticulitis. The police aggravated the staples from his surgery, causing bleeding from around the bag.

The officers then arrested Wright even though there was arguably no probable cause for the arrest. The officers designated Wright's arrest as arising from a drug investigation, even though they found no drugs on him. This designation resulted in Wright's being detained for more than nine hours and subjected to an intrusive body scan for drugs well after the officers knew of Wright's medical condition. The scan revealed no drugs, and no drug-related charges
were ever brought against him.

The district court granted summary judgment to the officers on the basis of qualified immunity, and to the City based on Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). As explained below, we disagree with the district court's qualified immunity analysis. With respect to the Monell claim, the evidence against the City includes the Chris Rock video, played as part of its use-of-force training for officers, in which the comedian makes remarks
about Rodney King and police misconduct that are highly inappropriate for law-enforcement instruction. The proof also includes an offensive cartoon in the City's police-training manual that portrays an officer in riot gear beating a prone and unarmed civilian with a club, with the caption "protecting and serving the poop out of you." . . . Based on this evidence and more, we find that Wright has introduced sufficient evidence of municipal policy to satisfy Monell.

The Chris Rock video in question is available here.