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Harris County, Texas, Settles Civil Rights Case for $1.5 Million Brought by Innocent Man Shot in His Home Five Times by Trigger-Happy Deputy

by Jo Ellen Nott

On December 19, 2023, the Harris County Texas Commissioners Court approved a $1.5 million settlement in Joshua Coucke’s case against Harris County, Texas. Coucke, 35, was an innocent bystander in his own home when he was shot five times by a Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputy.

On January 31, 2018, Coucke was at home with his girlfriend and pets while his roommate Matthew Cobb slept in an upstairs bedroom. Deputies Juan Lerma and Patrick Mirrielees showed up at his front door to arrest Cobb because he had reportedly threatened his ex-wife at another location. Cobb, who would commit suicide during the incident, was a disabled Army veteran studying for his master’s degree. He had been a triathlete before his military service, which left him with PTSD. He was also 35 years old on that unfortunate night.

The deputies ordered Coucke to wake Cobb. Coucke complied with the deputies’ order and exchanged places with two deputies. The deputies handcuffed Cobb in his underwear. He asked permission to put on his shorts, in which he had left the gun used earlier in the incident involving his ex-wife. The deputies passed Cobb his shorts but failed to notice the firearm. When they asked where the gun was, Cobb withdrew it from his shorts and managed to shoot Mirrielees while handcuffed. The deputy sustained a minor arm wound. The deputies fled with Coucke close behind them.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Lerma turned around and opened fire on Coucke as he followed them. Mirrielees did nothing to prevent his partner from shooting at Coucke despite both knowing that Coucke was an innocent, unarmed and fully cooperating bystander.

Surveillance video does not show the flurry of “friendly fire” Coucke endured. Nevertheless, Lerma’s bullets pierced Coucke’s hand, stomach, and back. He suffered a collapsed lung and has had four surgeries. Coucke, a former crane service technician, is still not fully recovered from his physical or emotional injuries. His attorney said Coucke left Texas to escape the painful memories and has lost trust in the police.

Coucke filed a lawsuit against Harris County in 2020, alleging civil rights violations. He claimed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and excessive force. Among his Monell claims, Coucke sought to hold Harris County liable for: “(1) ratifying the deputies’ illegal acts or failing to correct them; (2) inadequate screening; (3) using bystanders to help carry out arrests; (4) inadequate supervision; and (5) inadequate training (e.g., how to properly clear a scene of bystanders or use deadly force). In an alternate claim, he sued the county for negligence under the Texas Tort Claims Act.”

Harris County eventually settled the case. Coucke is rebuilding his life in Washington state, and Juan Lerma continues to work at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office despite documented incidents of use of excessive force.

In the original complaint, Coucke argued that “Lerma and Mirrielees had multiple, previous complaints of misconduct, including the use of excessive force. Lerma also had an excessive amount of use of force incidents. Between the time he was hired by Harris County and this incident, Lerma had twenty uses of force, including 5 uses of force with a taser.” The complaint also mentioned Lerma’s dishonesty regarding the use of force incidents by lying to investigators to cover up his wrongdoing.   

 

Sources: Coucke v. Harris Cnty., CIVIL ACTION NO. H-20-766, 13 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 7, 2020); Capitol.Texas.gov;, Harris County Texas Legistar Links; KHOU; KTRK Houston

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Related legal case

Coucke v. Harris Cnty

 

 

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