ST. LOUIS • Judges on the federal appeals court here on Wednesday had tough questions for both sides in a civil suit stemming from the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
At issue is a federal judge’s refusal to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson against Ferguson, former police Chief Tom Jackson and former Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown.
But the issues are unusual and complex, and lawyers on both sides said the case presented a unique set of circumstances.
Johnson’s attorneys claim he was stopped by Wilson in violation of the Constitution. They say Wilson then used excessive force when he fatally shot Brown and shot at Johnson and missed. The suit also claims that Wilson’s actions were part of a pattern of misconduct by Ferguson police.
The Ferguson defendants denied that and have argued that the police are immune from the suit because their actions were not unreasonable. They also say that Johnson was never “seized” for legal purposes. He never submitted to Wilson’s authority, as he stopped briefly but then ran away.
If Johnson was not “seized,” then the constitutional questions don’t come into play, and even Johnson’s attorneys admit his lawsuit must then fail.
In March 2016, U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig sided with Johnson’s attorneys and refused to dismiss the case.
Two of three judges on a panel of the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals agreed in July 2017, saying
Johnson’s allegations were sufficient to allow the case to proceed. Wilson meant to stop Brown and Johnson, and the pair did stop, they wrote.
But Judge Roger L. Wollman dissented, saying that Johnson wasn’t really seized — that he had the option of leaving or moving to the sidewalk. Wollman said he would have instructed Fleissig to dismiss the lawsuit.
In an unusual move, the Ferguson defendants’ court request for a rehearing in front of the whole appeals court was granted.
They also allowed the National Police Association to file a brief in support of Ferguson’s position that Johnson was not seized. Lawyers for the association said that Fourth Amendment issues in the cases, and their consequences for police officers’ ability to know how to do their jobs were “of the utmost importance.”