By Rebecca K. Smith, CLDC Board President & Cooperating Attorney

Last week, in Cole v. Carson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Texas held that a teenager who was shot by police could take the police to court for federal civil rights violations. The teen had recently broken up with his girlfriend and had walked into the woods pointing a gun to his own head. He backed out of the woods with the gun still to his head and then turned to his left to continue walking and police officers opened fire on him. When they shot him, he involuntarily pulled the trigger and the gun he was holding discharged into his own head. The teen was unaware that the police were standing there and they gave him no warning before shooting him. The teen survived but now has significant disabilities as well as significant medical bills. After the officers shot the teen, the officers had a meeting together and then subsequently they gave matching statements that the teen had pointed his gun at the officers. The teen was charged with a felony for attempted assault on a police officer.

In the case, the teen and his parents argued that the officers lied to cover up their actions and used unnecessary force against the teen. The federal court held that the claims should go to trial. The court held that there is no “open season” on individuals with guns and “the fact that a suicidal person [] has a gun to his head . . . does not always justify shooting him.” Thus, the court allowed the teen to bring a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. The court also held that there is a “due process right not to have police deliberately fabricate evidence and use it to frame and bring false charges against a person.” Thus, the court allowed the teen to bring another federal constitutional claim because the officers lied about what happened and caused the teen to be charged with a felony.

In sum, the court held: “Deliberate framing of a person by the state offends the most strongly held values of our nation . . . . Here, the framing was allegedly done in order to conceal and justify excessive force against one of the people our laws and systems are supposed to protect. The rule of law, which we have cherished since our founding, cannot abide such conduct.”