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We occasionally like to take a gander at the FindLaw Answers board to see which legal issues are trending. Criminal law is always popular; especially when parents are upset about their kids’ encounters with police.
We suspect that if parents are posting questions for our Answers community about excessive force, they’re probably calling local attorneys with these questions as well. With that in mind, today we’re looking at a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals qualified immunity case involving three siblings who claim that Dearborn police used excessive force in apprehending and questioning them about an armed robbery.
Though it is an unpublished opinion, this could be a useful guide for your initial meetings with clients.
While walking through a mall parking lot, police officers stopped the Coles because two of the siblings were wearing clothes that matched the descriptions of armed robbery suspects' outfits from earlier that day. Officers Edward Villemaire and Richard Michalski, both defendants in the case, ordered the group to make their hands visible and to lie down on the ground.
The Coles claimed they immediately complied. The officers claim that the Coles took up to 15 seconds to obey, but they conceded that the Coles and their companions were not actively resisting and were not physically aggressive.
The Coles were eventually released after the officers confirmed that they were not carrying guns, and the robbery victims told police that the Coles had not robbed them, but the siblings sued the officers for unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force.
The district court found that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity in the unreasonable search and seizure claim, and granted summary judgment as to municipal liability. However, the district court denied summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity as to the Coles' claim of excessive force.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision to deny qualified immunity to Officers Villemaire and Michalski on the excessive force claim.
While the Coles could not identify which of the officers used force against them, the Sixth Circuit, construing the facts in the light most favorable to the Coles, determined that a jury could infer that both the handcuffing officer and the cover officer were directly involved in the excessive force.
Even if all of the excessive force could be attributed to Officer Villemaire, Officer Michalski could be held liable for failure to intervene in the face of excessive force if he observed or had reason to know excessive force was being used, and had the opportunity to prevent the harm. Here, the court found that Michalski had reason to know that force was being applied, and had the opportunity and means to stop it, so he was not entitled to qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity challenges are difficult, but not impossible to survive. If you have a prospective client considering a lawsuit against local police for excessive force, take a closer look at this case when evaluating your claims qualified immunity survival chances.