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Eighth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment on Ferguson Protestor’s Excessive Force Claim

by Mark Wilson

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of four police officers on an excessive force claim while arresting protestors of the Michael Brown police shooting death.

White Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot African-American teenager Michael Brown Jr. to death on August 9, 2014. The shooting sparked mass protests in Ferguson and across America. During the Ferguson protests on August 11, 12, and 13, police deployed tear gas, non-lethal bullets, and other forms of force while arresting many protestors. On August 13, DeWayne Matthews was not a protestor but was walking near a crowd that was throwing bottles, rocks, and a Molotov cocktail at police. Believing that Matthews was a protestor, Detective Joe Patterson gave him a loud verbal command to turn around and walk the other direction. When he did not comply, Patterson yelled that Matthews was under arrest. Matthews continued to walk towards police, so they opened fire, hitting him with about five bean bag rounds and four rubber bullets.

When he was hit in the shin with a bean bag, Matthews fell into a culvert containing two-to-three feet of water. Detectives Aaron Vinson and William Bates then held Matthews’ head under water for three-to-five seconds, before lifting him from the water and slamming him face-first into the pavement. An officer put a knee in Matthews’ back as five or six others beat him. While punching and kicking him, the officers shouted various racial slurs. Even after he was handcuffed, officers pepper sprayed him. Matthews and several protestors brought federal suit against individual officers. The district court granted defendants summary judgment on all claims.

The Eighth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment on Matthews’ excessive force claim. “The district court erred in granting defendants Vinson, Bates, Patterson, and Payne qualified immunity with regard to Matthews’ claim that the officers had held his head underwater for three to five seconds, pepper sprayed him, and took turns punching and kicking him for two to three minutes,” the Court held. The appellate court explained that it “was clearly established that the use of this type of gratuitous force against a suspect who is handcuffed, not resisting, and fully subdued is objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” 

“While the officers and Matthews vehemently disagree about whether Matthews was resisting and the extent and reasonableness of the force applied, these fact disputes cannot be resolved on summary judgment.” The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the four officers on Matthews’ excessive force claim and remanded. See: White v. Jackson, 865 F.3d 1064 (8th Cir. 2017). 

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