SALT LAKE CITY, Dec. 19, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- As Michael Brown's family considers whether to file a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Darren Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department, two Salt Lake statistical experts, attorney Scott Young and economist Jeff Young, took a by-the-numbers look at similar cases before the U.S. District court most likely to hear the Browns' case.
Excessive force claims, including claims for unconstitutional use of deadly force, are typically litigated in federal court because they involve federal questions. A statistical 15 year analysis of deadly force claims before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, where Ferguson lies, reveals that the Browns may face an uphill battle.
In civil lawsuits heard in federal courts, defendants typically seek dismissal of the lawsuit before trial begins at two junctures. First, a defendant can file a "motion to dismiss," which requests outright dismissal of the case because the lawsuit fails to meet specific legal guidelines.
Second, the defendants may choose to file a "motion for summary judgment," which asks the judge to evaluate the evidence (or lack of it) housed in the legal claim, and determine whether or not the case may or may not proceed to trial. In addition, police officers have access to a defense called "qualified immunity," which is often asserted in both the motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment. This defense immunizes the officer from legal claims unless the plaintiff can prove a "clearly established" constitutional violation that occurred during the incident.
The trial judge has the discretion to approve or deny any of these motions.
From 2010 to the present, judges in the Eastern District of Missouri have decided 38 motions for dismissal and/or summary judgment cases regarding excessive force claims against police officers. The substance of the cases ranged from police dog bites to shootings. In each of these cases, the police officers asked the court to dismiss the claims before a jury trial, and in 47% of the cases the court ruled in favor of the defendant police officers and dismissed the claim. On the flip side, 53% of the excessive force cases survived a motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment, and either proceeded to trial or were successfully resolved.
However, these percentages differ significantly in deadly force cases. Since 1999, judges in the Eastern District of Missouri have issued decisions in 11 motions requesting dismissal or summary judgment involving deadly force. In 73% of those cases, the court dismissed the claims against the police officers. Less than a third of the deadly force cases proceeded to trial over the past 15 years.
Several factors could explain these percentages. The defendant officers and their police forces may have chosen to settle more viable deadly force claims out of court, leaving only the most tenuous claims to litigation. Police departments and their insurers often choose to settle disputed civil rights claims before litigation begins or in the early stages of litigation, perhaps because a victorious plaintiff is entitled to recover attorneys' fees in a civil rights case. Early settlement eliminates this risk. While legal experts would likely agree this could be a contributing factor; data on such motivation for settlements can be difficult to procure as most settlements are confidential.
Another qualifier worth considering is the standard for deadly force (threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or the public) is more concrete than the standard for other forms of excessive force, making claims for deadly force easier to legally satisfy.
Statistically, race did not seem to play a significant factor in the 11 deadly force cases the court has decided since 1999. We obtained data about the ethnicity of the eleven victims in these cases from case pleadings, news articles, obituaries, and lawyers involved in the cases. The victims were almost evenly split amongst Caucasians and minorities, with 5 Caucasian victims, 5 African-American victims, and 1 Latino victim. On motions to dismiss or summary judgment brought by the police officers, judges in the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed 80% of deadly force claims where Caucasians were killed (4 of 5) and 67% where minorities were killed (4 of 6). Judges also dismissed 67% of deadly force claims involving police shootings with Caucasian victims (2 of 3) and 50% with minority victims (2 of 4). These discrepancies are not statistically significant because of the small sample size.
As these statistics and others are interpreted by the two sides, these and other statistics provide an important perspective on the venue determined for trial. Those of us who thrive on the compilation of statistics will be watching with calculators in hand.
Scott Young is a lawyer who provides statistical analysis of courts and judges for clients. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Young has a Masters Degree in Economics from the University of Utah and currently works as a statistical analyst in the health care industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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SOURCE Attorney Scott Young