It takes a lot for a law enforcement officer to lose the protective shield of qualified immunity. This protection originates from the courts, not from statute, so it tends to be interpreted pretty loosely by the judges applying it. It covers the most egregious abuses of civil rights and liberties, just so long as the officer being sued has performed these violations with sufficient creativity.
Every so often, though, a cop does something no court can forgive. The multitude of exceptions afforded to law enforcement officers occasionally cannot be stretched to cover their sins in a cloak of official forgiveness. The Sixth Circuit Appeals Court recently handled one of these rarities.
An opinion [PDF] whose opening paragraph contains this sentence is not going to end well for the appellant.
[T]he string of horrors Officer William Dukes Jr. paraded on Jeffrey Littlepage after a simple traffic stop has no place in our society.
And it is a string of horrors. It’s an undeniable story of just how much havoc a man with a badge and bunch of power can wreak on a “civilian.” When it comes to police/citizen relationships, only one side holds all the cards. And unless someone has the wherewithal to lawyer up — and continue to litigate through multiple court levels for multiple years — the badge and the abused power go unchecked.
Jeffrey Littlepage stuck it out. Good thing he did. Otherwise, Officer William Dukes might have skated on this string of horrors. Without Littlepage’s tenacity, Dukes might be out of prison, free to roam around with a badge in hand and subject others to the same treatment he gave Littlepage.
Littlepage’s story starts with a traffic stop. It doesn’t end until Officer Dukes is behind bars. In between, there’s a hell of a lot of abusive activity by a man who never should have been allowed to carry a badge.
Officer Dukes was presumably killing time waiting to fuck someone up when a call came in that someone had tried to run another driver off the road. For whatever reason, Dukes decided it was Littlepage. He didn’t know who he was pulling over, so Littlepage won the SHIT COP lottery.
He approached Littlepage’s car and asked him to get out. When Littlepage did not respond quickly enough for Dukes, Dukes pulled him out. Unfortunately, the encounter did not end there. Dukes proceeded to frisk Littlepage, and it was not your ordinary frisk. Instead, Dukes “goosed” Littlepage (hit him in the genitals) and hit him in the back (after Littlepage had told him he had a bad back). R. 83, Pg. ID 1251. He then told Littlepage he was free to go, but not without giving him a warning. Dukes told him to stay off that road, and if he returned “down here, you’ll answer to me.” R. 82, Pg. ID 1008.
This was all terrifying enough for Littlepage, who had been minding his own business not running people off the road until he was pulled over by Officer Dukes and introduced to a brand new definition of “goosing.”
The problem for Littlepage is he needed to drive down that road. He had a friend to pick up the next day and he wanted to know whether or not he could drive down that road without being pulled from his car and physically abused by Officer Dukes.
He called the police department to inquire about his options and to file a complaint against Officer Dukes. The Providence PD said to come in the next day to file a complaint. That posed a problem because Littlepage still needed to drive down that road the next morning. He explained this and the dispatcher patched him through to the officer on duty: Officer Dukes. Dukes told Littlepage to “come in next week” to file the complaint and hung up on him. Littlepage — still with no answer — called back.
This time, Dukes answered, and before Littlepage could even get his question out, Dukes threatened to arrest him for harassing communications if he ever called again.
Sensing a bit of an impasse, Littlepage escalated his complaint. He called the Webster County Sheriff’s Office and then the Kentucky State Police, hoping to receive some sort of clearance to a) drive the road he needed to drive and b) get a complaint filed against Officer Dukes.
Law enforcement is an incestuous occupation. A literal game of “telephone” resulted in this:
Dukes soon got wind of Littlepage’s additional calls, and he hatched a plan to respond. He instructed the Providence dispatcher to call Littlepage and tell him that he could come down to the police station and complain to a supervisor, even though a supervisor was not on duty that night. Littlepage suspected this was “a trap” and instead asked if the supervisor could come to his house. Id. at 1024. The dispatcher said no but nevertheless asked Littlepage for his address. After confirming that no one would come and “harass” or “arrest” him, Littlepage complied. Id. at 1025. He then went to bed for the night.
Sleeping all night is fine for civilians, but if you’re a pissed off cop with an axe to grind and all the taxpayer-funded time in the world to grind it with, you do this:
Littlepage’s sleep was cut short when Dukes showed up at his house, banged on his door until he answered, and said, “Get your clothes on. You’re under arrest.”
Littlepage refused to go with Dukes, arguing that he had committed no crime. Officer Dukes — a firm believer in the sunk cost fallacy — decided to amp things up to prove might makes right when it comes to people he had abused previously.
Dukes followed Littlepage into his house, and things quickly escalated. In the ensuing melee (captured on Dukes’s body camera), Dukes shot Littlepage twice with a taser, sprayed him in the face with pepper spray, punched him in the nose (thereby breaking it), and hit him with his baton multiple times. Next, Dukes handcuffed Littlepage. Once they were outside, Dukes told the responding EMT that “he hadn’t been in a good fight like this in a long while.” R. 83, Pg. ID 1152, 1156. Littlepage went to the hospital to recover, at which point Dukes issued him citations for (1) harassing communications, (2) resisting arrest, (3) assaulting a police officer, and (4) criminal mischief (for allowing his broken nose—courtesy of Dukes—to bleed on Dukes’s uniform)
This is why cops aren’t fans of body cameras, despite the tech’s utter failure to produce better police officers. Also: bleeding on an officer is a crime.
This situation was so fucked, a prosecutor stepped in to dismiss all charges against Littlepage and file charges against Officer Dukes. The case was referred to the feds: the US Attorney’s Office.
Officer Dukes — convicted of rights violation charges — appealed. He claimed he had probable cause to arrest Littlepage under the state’s harassment laws. The appeals court said, “Oh my, no.”
Dukes maintains that he could arrest Littlepage because his calls served no legitimate purpose.
Contrary to Dukes’s claim, the evidence overwhelmingly shows there was no probable cause since Littlepage’s calls had a legitimate purpose. In fact, even Dukes admits that Littlepage was trying to obtain information about filing a complaint and about where he could permissibly drive. Both are legitimate purposes for his calls. Dukes and the dispatcher provided Littlepage with inconsistent information, thus requiring multiple calls for clarification. The dispatcher told Littlepage he could talk to the police chief the next morning, but Dukes said Littlepage had to wait until the following week. Neither Dukes nor the dispatcher clarified whether Littlepage could drive on the road again. And after the second call, Littlepage still did not have answers to his questions, so he called two other law enforcement agencies to seek advice. The jury heard recordings of these phone calls, and two of the dispatchers testified that, in their opinions, Littlepage’s call to them had been made for a legitimate purpose. Though Dukes may view the evidence differently, a rational juror could conclude that Dukes lacked probable cause to arrest Littlepage.
No qualified immunity. No “Fine. Just this once.” No more arguments about the sufficiency of evidence. Officer Dukes is going to jail to spend some quality time with people he and his blue brethren have locked up.
Whether the bootlickers want to admit it or not, cops wield an outsized amount of power. Officer Dukes was completely in the wrong but he still assaulted someone during a traffic stop, refused to assist him with his followup questions, and showed up at his house to assault him again for thinking about filing a complaint.
The problem isn’t necessarily the power. Without it, cops would be more useless than they already are. No, the problem is how readily we hand out power to those who can’t be trusted to use it responsibly… and how slowly we rescind it from people like Officer Dukes. This kind of thing doesn’t happen because Dukes is the bad apple in this particular barrel. It happens because Officer Dukes was pretty sure he could get away with it. In this case, he was wrong. But even as case law continues to develop, Officer Dukes — convicted and imprisoned for abusing the rights of a citizen — is an outlier.