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No Qualified Immunity for Fla. Officer Who Shot Suspect in Groin

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 17, 2015 2:24 PM

A routine vehicle stop in Miami became anything but routine after a police officer shot a suspect in the groin -- for no apparent reason. Det. Carl Rousseau pulled over a car and reportedly saw the passenger, Robert Valderrama, throw something out the car window that turned out to be a crack pipe.

Even though Valderrama appeared to be compliant during the stop, Rousseau shot him in the groin (refer to the Eleventh Circuit opinion for more of the grisly details). Rousseau talked about the incident for three minutes with his partner, Sgt. Yasima Smith, before Smith called an ambulance, but she said only that there was "a laceration."

Probable Cause

It took 11 minutes for an ambulance to get there because medics were under the impression they were dealing with a laceration. Had Smith reported a gunshot wound, they would have been there in four minutes.

A civil rights lawsuit predictably followed, alleging false arrest and deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. At the district court level, the officers asserted qualified immunity, which is what usually happens.

But unlike what usually happens, the district court denied qualified immunity to the officers, as there was a genuine issue of fact in dispute as to the false arrest -- namely, whether the officers ever saw Valderrama drop anything outside the car. The Eleventh Circuit reversed on this, finding that there was sufficient evidence to support the claim that officers had probable cause to arrest Valderrama.

Some Very Deliberate Indifference

On the deliberate indifference claim, though, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed denial of summary judgment to Rousseau and Smith. Both of them knew that Rousseau shot Valderrama in the groin, and the "gunshot wound was plainly a life-threatening injury." Despite knowing all of this, though, the officers instead talked about the incident for the next three minutes. "Significantly, neither Sergeant Smith nor Detective Rousseau has provided any explanation supported by the record why three and a half minutes passed before Sergeant Smith called an ambulance," the court said.

The court also wasn't impressed by their failure to accurately report the injury, which violated Miami-Dade County Police Department protocols. The court characterized Smith's report to dispatch as an intentional lie, which it said was supported by her "inconsistent statements under oath."

The court had its own explanation for the delay: "[A] jury could infer that Detective Rousseau and Sergeant Smith spoke about the shooting before calling for assistance and that they discussed the need to concoct a story that would justify Detective Rousseau's use of deadly force." The court also found credible the statement of an unrelated suspect who was already in custody in the back of Rousseau's patrol car, who testified that Rousseau offered to reduce the charges against him if he would falsely claim that he saw Valderrama holding a metallic object that looked like a gun.

Dissent: You're Making That Up

Judge Emmett Cox dissented on the issue of deliberate indifference, claiming the court "ignore[d] undisputed facts that rend its speculative weave." Cox argued that a transcript of the conversation between Smith and dispatch showed much of the delay was due to difficulties on the dispatch end, not Smith's failure to prioritize the call. He also said the majority's claim that the officers used the three-minute delay to "concoct" a story was speculative and based on facts not in the record.

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