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Eighth Circuit Greenlights Jail Detainee’s Excessive Force Claim, but Loss at Trial Affirmed on Appeal

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a district court’s ruling that held a jail detainee’s excessive force and assault and battery claims could not go forward.

Henry M. Davis was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri for driving while intoxicated between 3 and 4 a.m. on September 20, 2009. During the booking process, he was instructed to enter an occupied, one-person cell without a mat. Davis refused unless provided a mat from a nearby stack. Officers John Beaird and Christopher Pillarick called for backup and Officers Michael White, Kim Tihen and William Ballard responded. A “short, bloody fight” ensued, and Davis and White were hospitalized.

Later testimony indicated that White, Beaird and Tihen beat and kicked Davis after he was handcuffed and subdued on the floor. After the incident, Beaird drafted four complaints, each charging Davis with the offense of “property damage” for getting blood on the officers’ uniforms.

Following his release from the hospital, Davis sued the officers and the City of Ferguson. He asserted 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against the officers for use of excessive force; he sued the city for municipal liability and Beaird individually for filing false complaints. He also sued the officers individually for assault and battery.

The district court applied an “objective reasonableness” test to the facts related to the excessive force claim. The court then found that “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 laceration, and bruising with almost no permanent damage did not violate the Constitution.”

Perhaps a “reasonable” officer in today’s militarized police forces would think beating a handcuffed prisoner bloody was reasonable if it didn’t result in significant injuries; thankfully, however, the Eighth Circuit did not find that to be reasonable at all, and reversed the district court.

The appellate court also reversed the denial of Davis’ assault and battery claims. The lower court had dismissed those claims after finding that officers “acting within the scope of their authority are not liable in tort for injuries arising from their discretionary acts or omissions,” and that the decision to use force against Davis was a valid exercise of discretion.

While the Eighth Circuit agreed that was true, it pointed out that official immunity from allegations such as Davis’ assault and battery claims “does not apply to discretionary acts done in bad faith or with malice.” As it would be impossible to determine at the summary judgment stage that the beating was without bad faith or malice, the district court’s order dismissing the case was reversed. See: Davis v. White, 794 F.3d 1008 (8th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the case proceeded to a jury trial that began on February 29, 2016 and concluded two days later. During jury selection, the defendants used a peremptory strike to remove the only black juror from the panel. The jury subsequently found for the defendants and David again appealed.

On June 9, 2017 the Eighth Circuit held the district court had not erred in rejecting Davis’ Batson challenge to the striking of the only black juror; further, the Court of Appeals found that racist emails sent by one of the officers had been properly excluded because that officer was not involved in the excessive use of force incident. Also, the district court did not error when it declined to give an adverse inference instruction after the defendants failed to preserve video footage of the incident, finding they had acted negligently but not maliciously. The judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Davis v. White, 858 F.3d 1155 (8th Cir. 2017).

The defendants subsequently sought litigation costs of almost $5,000 from Davis, but the district court awarded them only $74.98. 

Related legal case

Davis v. White


 

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