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Appeals Court Revives Lawsuit By Black Teen Wrongfully Detained By Kansas City Police

Kansas City Police Department
A lower court judge had tossed Tyree Bell's lawsuit after finding the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Following three weeks in jail, Tyree Bell was released after a detective watched the patrol car videos from his arrest and concluded that his clothing and appearance did not match those of the suspect.

A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit brought by a Black teenager and his mother against two Kansas City police officers after he was arrested and detained for three weeks for a crime he didn’t commit.

In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that the officers did not have probable cause to arrest Tyree Bell and overturned the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

Bell, then 15, was walking home from a relative’s house on June 8, 2016, when he was stopped by police. Earlier, someone had called 911 and reported three Black males had been playing on the corner with guns.

When Kansas City Police Officers Peter Neukrich and Jonathan Munyan arrived, one of the males began running in the opposite direction. While running, he pulled a gun from his shorts and tossed it over a fence.

One of the officers gave chase but lost sight of the suspect. About seven minutes later, another policeman saw Bell walking about a mile away and talking on his cell phone. Although he was considerably taller than the suspect, wore his hair differently, wore shorts, shoes and socks that were different from those of the suspect and was breathing normally, Bell was placed on a 24-hour “investigative hold.”

A juvenile court judge later determined there was probable cause to detain Bell for unlawfully carrying a gun and fleeing from officers. He was detained in jail for three weeks.

Bell was released after a detective watched the patrol car videos from his arrest and concluded that his clothing and appearance did not match those of the suspect.

Bell and his mother subsequently sued Neukirch and Munyan, as well as the officer who detained him, the chief of police and members of the Board of Police Commissioners. But U.S. District Judge David Gregory Kays threw the case out in March 2019 after finding the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

That legal doctrine shields government officials from being sued for actions they take within their official capacity unless those actions violate a “clearly established” legal or constitutional right.

In its decision, the 8th Circuit found that the officers violated Bell’s constitutional rights by arresting him without probable cause and that any reasonable officer would have understood that what they did was unlawful.

“Bell wore different shorts and socks than the suspect wore at the scene,” Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith wrote. “His height varied by five inches from Munyan’s real-time description of the suspect. Bell did not exhibit signs of exertion that would be expected of a suspect who ran a mile in seven minutes on a warm afternoon. Given the glaring differences, there was not arguable probable cause to believe that Bell was the fleeing suspect. Bell’s right to be free from an arrest and detention under the circumstances was clearly established. It is an obvious case of insufficient probable cause.”

Bell’s lawyer, Arthur Benson, hailed the decision, saying the court had reached the proper result.

“Fifteen-year old Black males walking home from school in the summer wearing dark shorts and a white tee shirt are not all criminal suspects to be arrested and jailed for three weeks,” Benson said in an email. “They do not all look alike, even though two untrained Kansas City police officers may think they do."

“The Kansas City Police Department does not train its mostly white officers that cross-race identifications are often mis-identifications causing untold numbers of innocent people of color to be wrongfully arrested. Black lives matter. Three weeks of jail and years of fear stolen from a young black life matter.”

Sgt. Jake Becchina, a police department spokesman, said the department does not comment on pending litigation "to ensure fairness for all sides in the process.”

One judge, David R. Stras, dissented. He said he would have affirmed Kays’ decision to toss the case against Neukirch and Munyan. While acknowledging the case “is hardly the model of good police work,” Stras said Munyan and Neukirch were entitled to qualified immunity because they were not on notice that their conduct violated “clearly established law.”

Unless the officers ask the full appeals court to rehear the case, it now goes back to the District Court where, unless it is settled, it will be scheduled for trial.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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