Over the last few years, we have all seen the videos of police arrest that seem to involve excessive methods. These videos stoke controversy and encourage a discussion on what constitutes “excessive force” during an arrest. Even with video evidence, the actions of the police and the arrestee are subject to multiple interpretations. The search for the truth becomes even harder when the arrest is not videoed and the participants all give different testimony on those events. The following case out of Shreveport Louisiana demonstrates how the Civil court system handles differing testimony on allegations of excessive force during an arrest.
In July of 2012, Bobby Byrd filed a lawsuit as a result of what he alleged was the use of excessive force during an arrest against Roy Shore of the Bossier Police Department and W.W. Lindsey and Robert Gordon of the Shreveport Police Department. Mr. Byrd’s excessive force claims revolve around a police chase of Mr. Byrd. It all started when Detective Gordon, believing that the vehicle that Mr. Byrd drove at the time matched a vehicle tied to a string of burglaries, attempted to pull over Mr. Byrd. Instead of stopping, Mr. Byrd drove away from the police officer, crossing from Shreveport to Bossier. Eventually, Mr. Byrd abandoned his vehicle at the Red River and proceeded on foot into the Red River. The police, with a police canine in hand, continued after Mr. Byrd. During this pursuit, the riverbank caved in, causing the police canine to fall into the river. The officer holding the canine, Officer Yarborough of the Shreveport Police Department, released the canine’s leash. The police canine, instead of listening to the Officer Yarborough’s order to return to the riverbank, pursued Mr. Byrd and bit him. Mr. Byrd fought back, disorienting the police canine and causing the canine to retreat back to the riverbank. The officers eventually retrieved Mr. Byrd from the river.
It is at this point that the stories of Mr. Byrd and the police officers diverge. Mr. Byrd claims that after returning to the riverbank he fully complied with the officers’ requests and that after the police officers handcuffed him they proceeded to strike him. In contrast, the police officers claim that Mr. Byrd did not comply with their instructions and that Mr. Byrd reached towards his waistband which was submerged underwater. The officers, believing that Mr. Byrd could have a weapon in his waistband, deployed “distraction strikes” in order to subdue Mr. Byrd. Regardless of the stories, Mr. Byrd suffered multiple injuries: “a dog bite wound, wounds to the forearms, a broken nose, a broken orbital floor requiring surgical reconstruction with a titanium plate, kidney trauma, and abrasions to his ribs” because of this incident.
Mr. Byrd filed suit alleging that the police officers used excessive force. Excessive force requires the plaintiff, in this case Mr. Byrd, to prove that the injury was caused by clearly excessive and unreasonable force. See Harris v. Serpas, 745 F.3d 767, 772 (5th Cir. 2014). The District Court ruled on summary judgment that Mr. Byrd failed to prove that the officers used excessive force. Summary judgment asks the court to decide the case prior to it going to trial. When a court decides a case on summary judgment it must first determine that there is no dispute over the material facts of the case. When there is a dispute over material facts of the case, a court may disregard one side’s claim of what occurred when no reasonable jury could believe that side’s claim of what happened. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The district court relied on a photo showing a police officer pressing Mr. Byrd’s head towards the water while two other officers, standing by Mr. Byrd, were trying to restrain him. The district court disregarded Mr. Byrd’s story based on this photographic evidence believing that no reasonable jury could believe Mr. Byrd’s side of the story.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court improperly excluded Mr. Byrd’s version of events. The Court held that while the photo does discredit Mr. Byrd’s story, it “is far from conclusive.” Because the photo is not conclusive, the Court found that there is a general dispute over a material fact and that the officers in the picture, Officers Short, Gordon, and Lindsey, must proceed to trial. Additionally, the Court ruled against Mr. Byrd and approved summary judgment for Officer Yarborough, the officer in charge of the police canine. The Court, in coming to this decision, relied on the lack of precedent (prior case history) to support a finding of excessive force when a police officer loses control of his or her canine and that canine then injures a suspect. See Ballard v. Hedwig Vill. Police Dep’t, 408 F. App’x 844, 845 (5th Cir. 2011).
While the Court of Appeals handed Mr. Byrd a victory by enabling him to continue to pursue his claims against three police officers, Mr. Byrd still has a long way to go in his case. Now, Mr. Byrd must prove that his injuries were caused by clearly excessive and unreasonable force by Officers Short, Gordon and Lindsey. This proof will require a good lawyer to convince the jury that Mr. Byrd’s side of the story is the correct one. For Mr. Byrd, this victory is just one step in a long complex legal process.
Additional Sources: Bobby Charles Byrd versus City of Bossier; City of Shreveport; Roy Short, individually and in his official capacity, also known as Officer Short; Chris Yarborough, individually and in his official capacity; W. W. Lindsey, individually and in his official capacity; R. Gordon, individually and in his official capacity.
Written By Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Anthony Lally
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Arrest and Excessive Force Lawsuits: Gretna Woman’s Excessive Force Lawsuit Against Gretna Police Fails For Lack of Evidence