The Ferguson cops charged Henry Davis with destruction of property because he bled on their uniforms when they beat him.
Then, as if fearing it might be outdone in ridiculousness, a federal district court ruled that Davis could not sue the cops for violating his Fourth Amendment rights because they had not injured him badly enough as he lay handcuffed on the jailhouse floor, a working man arrested on a traffic warrant in a case of mistaken identity.
“As unreasonable as it may sound, a reasonable officer could have believed that beating a subdued and compliant Mr. Davis while causing only a concussion, scalp lacerations and bruising with almost no permanent damage did not violate the Constitution,” the district court ruled in tossing out the case.
Davis appealed and his attorney James Schottel responded to absurdity with legal reasoning. He argued that the decisive factor was not the seriousness of Davis’s injuries but the nature of the officers’ actions.
The district court had ruled that the officers enjoyed “official immunity” because they “acted within their discretion and caused only de minimis [slight] injuries.”
Schottel contended that official immunity “does not apply to discretionary acts done in bad faith or with malice.”
The appeals court could not have been clearer in its response on Tuesday.
The court went on to say, “That an officer’s conduct caused only de minimis injuries does not necessarily establish the absence of malice or bad faith as a matter of law.”
In recapping the case, the appeals court noted that Davis had been arrested by Police Officer Christopher Pillarick early on the morning of September 20, 2009. Davis was brought to what the appeals court calls “the crowded Ferguson jail.” Pillarick and Police Officer John Beaird escorted Davis to a cell where the only bunk was occupied.
“Davis requested a mat from a nearby stack,” the court says. “Pillarick refused because Davis was not cooperating. Davis refused to enter the cell.”
The cops radioed for backup. Police Officer Kim Tihen and Police Officer Michael White responded, along with Sergeant William Battard.
“The deposition testimony differs dramatically concerning what happened next,” the court says. “It is undisputed that White pushed Davis into the cell and a short, bloody fight ensued.”
The court notes that there is no video of the incident, but there is “testimony supporting a claim that White, Beaird and Tihen each beat or kicked Davis after he was handcuffed and subdued on the floor of the cell.”
The court further notes, “After the incident, Beaird completed four complaints charging Davis with the offense of ‘Property Damage’ for transferring blood onto the uniforms of Beaird, Tihen, White, and Pillarick.”
The appeals court then summarizes the lower court’s contention that “a reasonable officer” could believe that in beating their handcuffed prisoner they were not violating the Constitution.
Here, too, the appeals court could not have been clearer in its response.
One of the cops, Tihen, had gone on to become a City Council member from the First Ward, filling a vacancy left by a two-term incumbent who had resigned after being disbarred as a lawyer for “unprofessional conduct.”
At the time, four of the five sitting members City Council were white. Tihen made it five of six in a town that was 70 percent black.
She and the rest of the council were in smiling attendance when the Ferguson police chief presented Police Officer Darren Wilson with an award for making a drug collar.
Wilson became known to the whole country after his encounter with 18-year-old Michael Brown.
In the uproar following Brown’s death, the Ferguson police department came under scrutiny. The beating of Davis reached public attention.
So did Tihen’s role in the incident.
And that may have been part of her reason for not seeking a second term.
Three people campaigned for the seat. The victor was a high-energy, goodhearted black woman named Ella Jones, who won after spending weeks canvassing from house to house.
“Every door that’s in the First Ward,” she told The Daily Beast.
A black man named Wesley Bell won a seat in the Third Ward, which made the City Council three and three race-wise.
Ferguson also got a black police chief.
And on Tuesday, the court of appeals reversed a lower court’s ruling and said Davis could go ahead with his excessive-force suit.
His lawyer, Schottel, reported in the afternoon that his client Davis had not yet heard the good news.
“He’s at work,” Schottel said. “He’ll probably be the last to know. He’s a hard worker.”