MBLB Victory at Fifth Circuit Highlights Difference Between Qualified Immunity and Monell Liability for Police Officers and Departments

Mouledoux, Bland, Legrand & Brackett attorneys Mark Hanna, Trevor Cutaiar, and Joseph Trytten scored a big win for the firm’s Municipal Liability practice this week, as the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision after hearing on oral argument, affirming a dismissal of MBLB’s clients: the City of Bastrop, Louisiana, and two of its police officers.

Wilson v. City of Bastrop – Background

Wilson v. City of Bastrop arose out of two Bastrop Police Department (“BPD”) officers fatally shooting a suspect running towards an elementary school while carrying a handgun. The court’s opinion is an excellent case study in the different elements and requirements to establish civil rights claims against individual government employees and against municipalities as a whole.

A Bastrop Police Department officer responded to a series of 911 calls at an apartment complex in March 2019. The calls warned that a man named “Thomas Johnson,” who drove a red truck, was brandishing a gun and confronting people. The responding officer, en route to the apartments, saw a red truck stopped by the side of the road. The red truck began to pull away, so the officer turned on his lights and sirens, and stopped the truck.

The truck’s passenger (later identified as Thomas Johnson) climbed out of the vehicle carrying a handgun with an extended magazine as the BPD officer approached the truck. Johnson ignored the officer’s instructions to drop the weapon, and instead started to run towards a nearby elementary school. It was during school hours and on a school day. The school had been closed for some time, but there were school buses and children in the area.

The BPD officer drew his weapon and ordered Johnson to drop his gun. When Johnson kept running and failed to comply, the BPD officer opened fire and called out “shots fired” on the radio. Johnson kept running across the field, outpacing the officer.

At this time, another BPD officer rolled up on the opposite side of the field, in front of the fleeing suspect. Johnson suddenly changed directions and ran towards a tree line bordering a residential neighborhood. The new officer again ordered Johnson to drop his weapon. When Johnson kept running, the officer fired and apparently struck the suspect. Johnson stumbled, picked up his gun again, and kept running. Both officers continued to give chase, firing several more times. Johnson eventually dropped his gun and fell to the ground. He died at the scene.

Johnson’s family sued the officers for using excessive force and the City of Bastrop for failing to properly train or supervise its employees. They brought this claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983—the federal statute that allows a person to sue local governments and officials for violating his constitutional rights.

The Fifth Circuit’s Analysis

The City of Bastrop’s officers, defended by MBLB, successfully raised the defense of “qualified immunity” in the trial court—that there was no constitutional violation, and that any alleged violation was not clearly established under law. The district court found that the officers did not violate Johnson’s constitutional rights under any standard—“clearly established” or not. Because there was no constitutional violation, the plaintiffs could not sustain a Monell claim against the City of Bastrop as the municipality. Accordingly, court dismissed all defendants. The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision. It concluded that the officers did not violate Johnson’s constitutional rights and did not use excessive force by shooting him. The question of whether deadly force is appropriate turns on whether the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious harm—either to the officer or to others. This determination is made based on the knowledge available to a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

Here, the Fifth Circuit had no trouble determining that the force was reasonable. Johnson matched the description of someone who had just been reported brandishing a firearm at an apartment complex. When confronted by police, he grabbed a handgun and began running towards a school, away from the officer. Even then, the officer only fired after shouting numerous warnings. The fact that Johnson never pointed the weapon at the officer was immaterial—the Fifth Circuit does not require an officer to be staring down the barrel of a gun before deadly force is allowed. Rather, the facts that Johnson had been suspected of brandishing a weapon, was running towards a school and a residential community, and refused to obey police commands to drop his weapon, collectively gave sufficient justification for the officers to use deadly force.