A federal appeals court has sent a civil rights claim against a white Bellaire police officer who shot an unarmed black man in his parents' driveway back to trial court.
Issued today by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the ruling revives a claim filed by RobbieTolan against Officer Jeffrey Cotton, who shot Tolan after a traffic stop in 2008. Cotton was acquitted of state charges of first-degree aggravated assault in 2009.
Tolan -- son of former St. Louis Cardinal and Cincinnati Red Bobby Tolan -- and his family filed a federal suit against Cotton, police officer John C. Edwards, and the City of Bellaire shortly after that verdict.
Citing "qualified immunity," the trial court summarily dismissed the excessive-force claims against Edwards and Cotton, and the Fifth Circuit appeals court upheld the summary judgment in 2013. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2014 vacated the judgment against Cotton and remanded the case to the appeals court, and now the case is back, minus one defendant, where it started.
Cotton and his partner pulled over an SUV occupied by Robbie Tolan, then 23, and his cousin, in the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 2008. Officer Edwards, who was patrolling the area, ran the truck's license plate -- unfortunately, he entered the wrong number and wound up with the plate of a car that had been stolen.
As the Chron reported, Edwards "called for backup, drew his weapon, and confronted Tolan and Cooper [the cousin] in front of their house, ordering them to the ground. Hearing the commotion outside, Tolan's parents...came outside in their pajamas and began protesting the treatment of the two men. They tried to explain to the officers that the car was theirs and that they lived at that house."
But "within 32 seconds of Cotton's arrival at the scene, Tolan was shot by Cotton as he started to get up from the ground, protesting the treatment of his mother who was being pushed toward the garage door by one of the officers. Cotton said he thought Tolan was reaching for a gun in his waistband."
The bullet ripped through his lung and lodged in his liver. As we wrote in 2009, the incident suggests how easy it is for certain kinds of people to be shot by a Bellaire cop.
Update: Robbie Tolan's attorney, Martin Siegel, who handled the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, stated in a press release that "We're very pleased the 5th Circuit decided that the case will finally go to trial, as it should have in the first place. Robbie Tolan is now another step closer to justice."
William Helfand, a lawyer for Cotton and the City of Bellaire, told the Chron that "It appears to be a very carefully written ruling. When it gets to the trial court, Judge [Melinda] Harmon will decide what to do, whether it's a trial or further briefing or something else, and she'll let us know."