A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by a black teenager and his mother against the Kansas City Police Department after he was arrested and detained for three weeks for a crime he didn’t commit.
U.S. District Judge Greg Kays ruled on Thursday that the police were entitled to qualified immunity and granted the department’s and individual officers’ motion for summary judgment.
The legal doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials from being sued for actions they took within their official capacity unless those actions violated a “clearly established” legal or constitutional right.
Arthur Benson, who represented the teen, Tyree Bell, and his mother, said they were “extremely disappointed” in the decision and plan to appeal.
“In spite of glaring inconsistencies in the description between the suspect and Mr. Bell, the court held that the mistake of the officers was excusable because a ‘prudent’ officer could have arrested Mr. Bell in spite of the mismatch in descriptions,” Benson said in an email. “But being prudent requires acting with care for future consequences. Ignoring the glaring inconsistencies was not being prudent. Further, these officers were not trained to be careful as to cross race show-up identifications that are highly fallible, facts that undermined the ‘prudence’ of their arrest of Mr. Bell.”
Bell, then 15, was walking home from a relative’s house on June 8, 2016, when he was detained by police. Earlier a homeowner in the area had reported three black juvenile males had been playing on the corner with guns.
When police arrived at the street corner seven minutes later, they saw three black juveniles talking to teenage girls. When they saw the police, the juveniles walked away and the police followed them around the corner. One of the juveniles began running in the opposite direction. While running, he pulled a gun from his shorts and tossed it over a fence.
One of the policemen gave chase but lost sight of the suspect. About seven minutes later, another policeman saw a black juvenile with dreads, a white t-shirt, and black and white-striped shorts walking about a mile away and detained him. That turned out to be Bell, who was put on 24-hour investigative hold and later transferred to the Juvenile Justice Center, where he was held for three weeks.
Bell was released after a detective watched the patrol car videos from Bell’s arrest and concluded that Bell and the fleeing suspect were different people because they were wearing different shorts and socks. A sergeant and prosecutor who also viewed the videos agreed with the detective.
In his lawsuit alleging violations of his constitutional rights, Bell claimed that the officers did not consider exculpatory evidence and failed to conduct a “minimal further investigation” that would have exonerated him.
Had they done so, Bell claimed, they would have noticed that the fleeing suspect was wearing different colored clothing and was shorter. He also said the officers failed to check with the party who called about the juveniles playing with guns and failed to consider how unlikely it was that Bell could have run a mile in seven minutes without losing his breath.
But Kays ruled that, “[g]iven the totality of the circumstances, the officers could reasonably believe probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff, so they are entitled to qualified immunity.”
“Here, the fleeing suspect and Plaintiff were physically similar: they both were black, juvenile males who had a similar height, weight, body build, hair color, hair style, and hair length,” Kays wrote. “They also both wore unstained white t-shirts and black and red shoes. Although Plaintiff’s and the fleeing suspect’s shorts and socks were different, the officers’ experience told them that fleeing suspects frequently wear more than one pair of shorts or socks and will shed clothing in a foot pursuit.”
Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a spokesman for the police department, declined to comment because the case was still subject to appeal.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.