This is the story of one of the police shooting cases the attorneys of Marsh Rickard & Bryan are handling:
On April 24, 2014, Aubrey Williams was complying with a police officer’s command to get on the ground. Once Williams was on his hands and knees the officer shot him twice at point-blank range. Williams spent two months in the hospital recovering from his gunshot wounds. The officers charged Williams with the misdemeanor of violating the Alabama State Firearms Act as well as two charges of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. Due to the felony charge, Williams’s bond was set to $250,000 which he was unable to pay thus keeping him in jail for more than 16 months. Eventually, footage from one of the officers’ dashboard cameras became public, which showed the Williams’ account of that night was the truth. The Jefferson County District Attorney then dismissed the charges against Williams.
On behalf of Williams, our law firm sued the two officers and the City of Birmingham under § 1983 for malicious prosecution as well as state law claims. A federal judge in the Northern District of Alabama denied the officers’ attempts to have the case thrown out of court. The officers appealed.
This week, on July 13, 2020, the federal appeals court issued its decision in Williams’ case. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, which means the case can move forward and should reach a jury.
Qualified immunity acts as a barrier between civil lawsuits and public officials. It is intended to protect officials as they perform their government duties so that efficiency and assertive decision-making is not compromised by fear of suit. In order for a public official to successfully assert the defense of qualified immunity and thus evade liability, the official must have been acting within their discretionary authority, and the official’s conduct must not have violated a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the event.
The officers argued that state agent immunity insulates them from Williams’ state law claim for malicious prosecution. While qualified immunity protects public officials from liability arising from constitutional violations, state agent immunity protects officials from state law liability when they are acting within their discretionary authority. Only if one of a few exceptions apply will the immunity be removed and a lawsuit under state law allowed to proceed against the government official. In regard to Williams’ case, the Eleventh Circuit found that the “malice” exception applied. The court found that Williams had met his burden of proving that the officers acted “without justification or excuse” and “with the intent to commit a wrongful act.” The Court said that a reasonable jury could find the officers to have lied when they accused Williams of pointing a gun at them. The officers’ narratives of what happened the night Williams was shot significantly changed once the dashboard video was released. The Eleventh Circuit found that a jury could find from these inconsistencies were intentionally false. The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in this case is a strong win for those seeking justice for being wrongfully prosecuted.