Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Lawsuit over fatal shooting of black youth by white police officer in Mobile, AL, settles for $2.5 million after judge denies cop's request for qualified immunity

Protesters seek justice for Michael Dashawn Moore


A Mobile, AL, woman has settled a lawsuit for $2.5 million after a white police officer fatally shot her 19-year-old black son during a 2016 traffic stop. The Atlanta law firm of Williams Oinonen represented Shunta Daugherty, the mother, in the case. From an article at the law firm's Web site, under the headline "Black Lives Matter: Wrongful Death of Black Teen in Police Shooting Case Victory Where Alabama U.S .Judge Trims Police Qualified Immunity, Keeping Civil Claims Alive":

Michael Dashawn Moore was only 19 years old shot and killed during a traffic stop by Mobile Police officer Harry Hurst in 2016 when, according to witnesses, he had his hands up. Officer Hurst claimed he had a weapon which no one could find at the scene.

Williams Oinonen LLC obtained a recent ruling in a case that sparked protests in Mobile, Alabama, in 2016 and continues to generate controversy, where the federal judge has added to a significant body of case law holding that police officers accused of shooting citizens are not automatically protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which has so often derailed civil lawsuits seeking damages.

This is a big win in the case for obtaining justice for our client, Michael Moore’s family. For more information you can read the story here.

The facts in the case, Daugherty v. Hurst, are hotly disputed, but it seems clear U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer's denial of the officer's qualified immunity claim paved the way for Daugherty to achieve at least some measure of justice. This is how the case wound its way through court, from Moorer's  memorandum opinion in the Southern District of Alabama (some citations omitted):

On February 9, 2017, Plaintiff Shunta Daugherty ("Plaintiff") filed her original complaint against Defendant Harry Hurst ("Officer Hurst"). . . . Plaintiff asserted three counts in the original complaint: (1) allegations of a Fourth Amendment violation brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) wrongful death pursuant to Ala. Code. § 6-5-410; and (3) negligence pursuant to Alabama state law. Id. Officer Hurst appeared and answered the complaint on April 7, 2017. . . . 

On June 12, 2018, Plaintiff sought to amend her complaint, which the Court granted.  . . . The Amended Complaint was docketed on June 21, 2018. . . . Plaintiff added as defendants the City of Mobile ("the City") and the University of South Alabama Medical Center ("the Medical Center") and asserts five separate counts as follows: (1) a Fourth Amendment violation brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Hurst in his official and individual capacities; (2) wrongful death pursuant to Ala. Code. § 6-5-410 against Officer Hurst in his official and individual capacities; (3) negligence pursuant to Alabama state law against Officer Hurst in his individual capacity; (4) negligent Retention against the City; (5) unskillfulness of Hurst against the City; and (6) spoliation against the Medical Center. The City filed its answer on July 27, 2018.  . . The Medical Center filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), to which the Plaintiff responded was unopposed. . . . Consequently, the Medical Center was dismissed as a defendant and Count VI for spoliation was dismissed. . . .  Therefore, the only defendants remaining were Officer Hurst and the City and the only claims remaining were Counts I through V.

After discovery concluded, on October 4, 2019, the City and Officer Hurst filed their respective motions for summary judgment. . . . Plaintiff timely responded and Defendants timely replied. . . .

Moorer's statement regarding the summary-judgment standard, and his apparent determination to abide by it, was a key factor in the case:

Factual Background

At the summary judgment stage, even in cases of excessive force, the facts are "what a reasonable jury could find from the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Cantu v. City of Dothan, --- F.3d ---, ---, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, at *4, 2020 WL 5270645, at *2 (11th Cir. Sept. 3, 2020) (quoting Scott v. United States, 825 F.3d 1275, 1278 (11th Cir. 2016)). "[W]here there are varying accounts of what happened, the proper standard requires us to adopt the account most favorable to the non-movant." Id. at ---, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28074, at *4-5, 2020 WL 5270645, at *2 (quoting Smith v. LePage, 834 F.3d 1285, 1296 (11th Cir. 2016)). Therefore, the recitation of facts here are those construed in favor of the Plaintiff. "The 'facts' at the summary judgment stage are not necessarily the true, historical facts; they may not be what a jury at trial would, or will, determine to be the facts." Id.

How jumbled were the facts in Daugherty, according to court documents? Moorer's opinion makes it clear:

The case results from the shooting and subsequent death of Michael Dashawn Moore ("Moore") by Officer Hurst. Plaintiff alleges the following facts in her Amended Complaint and response to summary judgment. . . . Of note, there is no video of the traffic stop or shooting. The only video available is several minutes later from responding officers reporting to the scene.

On June 13, 2016, Moore, went to play basketball at the Springhill Rec Center. Afterwards, Moore and two friends, Mark Amos ("Amos") and Robert Blackmon ("Blackmon"), rode around the City of Mobile in a white Lexus. Officer Harry Hurst ("Officer Hurst") was a Mobile Police Department Officer who was on his way into work. Eventually, Officer Hurst activated his blue lights to initiate a traffic stop of the white Lexus. The Lexus pulled into the driveway of an office on the south side of Wagner Street. Officer Hurst pulled up behind the Lexus, got out of the patrol car, and walked up to the Lexus on the passenger side of the vehicle. Moore was the driver of the vehicle while Amos was in the front passenger seat and Blackmon was in the back seat. Officer Hurst requested Moore's license and registration, and Moore verbally gave a driver's license number.

Officer Hurst went back to his patrol vehicle. According to Officer Hurst, at this point, he called police dispatch to provide the location of the traffic stop and the Lexus' tag number. Officer Hurst heard the dispatcher put out a radio request for an officer to back Hurst up for a possible Code 29. At this point, Officer Hurst indicates he ran the Lexus tag in the National Crime Information Center ("NCIC"), which indicated a stolen vehicle report submitted by MPD Officer Demetrius Watts. Officer Hurst also ran the tag number in the Law Enforcement Tactical System ("LETS"), which displayed the photograph of the vehicle's owner, an older white male that clearly was not Moore, a younger black male. Officer Hurst also said he ran the driver's license number that Moore had recited, and the result displayed a photograph of the holder of the license was another white male (different from the vehicle owner).

Dispatch was having difficulty securing back up for Officer Hurst as the time of day was at shift change and at the end of the business workday. Officer Hurst then got out of his patrol car, drew his service weapon, and approached the driver's side of the Lexus. Officer Hurst then ordered Moore out of the vehicle.

Moore complied with the officer's command, and that proved to be a fateful step:

At this stage, the facts become heavily disputed. Plaintiff alleges Moore stepped out of the vehicle with a cell phone in his hand, moved towards the front of the Lexus, and once there he faced Hurst with his hands raised in the air. Plaintiff acknowledges that even their witness testimony varies - some witnesses say there was not a gun on Moore while others say a gun was tucked in his shorts, but that he never reached for the weapon. Some also acknowledge that Moore stepped back as if he stumbled or prepared to run. Then Officer Hurst shot Moore despite the fact Moore did not reach for a weapon with his hands still in the air. After Moore fell to the ground, Officer Hurst shot him again.

Officer Hurst tells a very different version of events. Though the Court must consider the facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court will still articulate Officer Hurst's version of events to provide context for this legal dispute. Officer Hurst alleges that Moore exited and faced the vehicle with his hands extended above the roof with a cell phone in one hand. Officer Hurst then ordered him to put his cell phone down. When Moore bent to put the cell phone down, Officer Hurst noticed Moore had a pistol tucked into his shorts. Officer Hurst told Moore he saw the gun and directed him not to reach for it. As Moore straightened up, he paused while his back was to Officer Hurst. Moore then broke away and spun around rapidly with his hands at chest level. Officer Hurst says he lost sight of Moore's hand for a moment. Officer Hurst then saw Moore's right hand move towards his waist. Officer Hurst fired several shots, and Moore fell backwards. Officer Hurst shouted for Moore to put his hands behind his head, but Moore did not comply. Rather, Moore moved his hand towards his waist where Officer Hurst had seen the gun tucked in his shorts. Officer Hurst believed his life was in danger and fired a final shot. After the final shot, Officer Hurst trained his service weapon on Amos and Blackmon and ordered them to keep their hands where he could see them. Officer Hurst then contacted dispatch, repeated his request for backup, and indicated an officer-involved shooting.

Numerous witnesses were in the vicinity and provide varying accounts of the events. Some favor the Plaintiff's version of events while others favor the Defendants' version.

Did a search of Moore's body produce a gun? No, at least not one with Moore's fingerprints on it:

Mobile Police officer Ophelia Weathington ("Officer Weathington") responded to the dispatch call for back up for an officer-involved shooting and activated her body camera. Officer Weathington was the first to arrive on the scene approximately two to three minutes later. At Officer Hurst's request, she secured Amos and Blackmon by training her service weapon on them and telling them to keep their hands up. Officer Hurst rolled Moore onto his stomach and handcuffed his hands behind his back. Officer Hurst, along with Officer Weathington and Officer Deadre Portis (who had just arrived), moved Amos and Blackmon from the Lexus, handcuffed them, and placed them in separate patrol cars.

Officer Hurst searched Moore after he was shot, but did not find a weapon. On the scene, Officer Hurst told at least two officers that he found a magazine in Moore's pocket, but after one officer pointed out that Officer Hurst appeared to be missing a magazine from his own carrier, he did not mention it again. Several officers also searched the area and never located a weapon. At this point, paramedics worked on Moore, placed him on a stretcher, and took him to an ambulance. Moore was also searched by a paramedic who also did not find a gun. This search included lifting Moore's shirt and pulling his shorts away from his body as captured by the body-camera video from Officer Portis. Moore was taken by ambulance to the Medical Center. In the ambulance, Moore's shirt and shorts were cut by paramedics and still no gun was found. Once in the hospital, Moore was transferred from the stretcher to a hospital bed. Numerous doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel worked on or observed Moore's treatment. Still no gun was found.

Eventually, after Moore was pronounced dead, a nurse found a firearm after she rolled Moore's body over. The nurse notified the officer in the room, and the weapon was photographed and recovered. The gun had little to no blood on it despite a large pool of blood under Moore, and when tested for fingerprints, Moore's fingerprints were not found on the gun or the bullets.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA ) is leading an effort in Congress to end qualified immunity. The Michael Dashawn Moore case provides a dramatic example of what can happen when immunity is taken out of the equation in a civil-rights case against police.

(To be continued)

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