5th Clearly Botched Police Shooting Case; Was it SCOTUS-Worthy?

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 08, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This was a pretty clear case where the Fifth Circuit screwed up.

A promising young baseball player is shot by police officers. He says that there was no reason for the excessive force and that he was on his knees at the time of the shooting. The officers testified that he was crouching, getting ready to attack, and that the three shots fired, one of which punctured a lung and ended his athletic endeavors, was far from excessive.

The Fifth Circuit? They sided with the police officers, and affirmed the summary judgment grant, citing qualified immunity, despite there being significant issues of fact to sort through.

It was a clear mistake, one the Supreme Court corrected, despite reservations expressed by Justices Alito and Scalia.

SCOTUS: No Factual Determinations

It started with a mistyped letter: instead of 696BGK, Officer John Edwards entered 695BGK. The typo coincidentally matched the make and model of the car driven by Robert Tolan, a Texas baseball standout (and son of a former Major Leaguer). The typo also came up as stolen.

Officer Edwards drew his pistol and ordered Tolan and his cousin to the ground. He accused them of stealing the car. Tolan's parents, the owners of the car, told the officer that the car was theirs, and that Robert was their son.

This is when things get fuzzy. Tolan's family paints a picture of overly aggressive police officers that slammed Tolan's mother against the garage door, bruising her arms and back. Both parties agree that Tolan said, "Get your fucking hands off my mom," before he was shot by a second police officer. The disputed facts include whether Tolan was standing, in a ready to attack position, and how much lighting was available in the driveway.

The qualified immunity test consists of two parts: (1) whether the facts, taken in a light most favorable to the injured party, demonstrate a violation of a federal right and (2) whether the right was clearly established.

The Fifth Circuit discussed the officers' right to defend themselves when they reasonably believed that Tolan was a threat. Obviously, such a discussion credits the officers' account over the injured party. It was a clearly erroneous analysis, begging for reversal, but the Fifth Circuit denied en banc review over the dissent of two judges who pointed out that the "panel opinion erroneously and misleadingly represent[ed] facts that are genuinely disputed as being undisputed."

Alito: SCOTUS Doesn't Do Small Potatoes

Too bad, says Alito. Though he concurred with the per curiam opinion, he argued that this case simply wasn't worth of Supreme Court intervention.

"[T]he granting of review in this case sets a precedent that, if followed in other cases, will very substantially alter the Court's practice," he noted. "There is no question that this case is important for the parties, but the same is true for a great many other cases that fall into the same category."

Alito relied upon the Court's Rule 10, which states that a "petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law." Here, the Fifth Circuit cited the correct standard, but clearly botched its application.

Even though Alito and the rest of the Court agree that "there are genuine issues of material fact and that this is a case in which summary judgment should not have been granted," he argued that this case simply isn't big enough for the Supreme Court.

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