A federal magistrate dismissed a lawsuit filed by a man who alleged Muskogee police used excessive force during a 2016 arrest that rendered him unconscious and hospitalized for three days.
The ruling on a motion for summary judgment filed by lawyers representing the police officers drew a mixed response. City officials lauded the opinion, describing it as a vindication of the officers' conduct, while lawyers representing the plaintiff said the ruling will confuse Americans who are trying "to stay alive during encounters with law enforcement."
The arrest took place in the parking lot of a Muskogee fast food restaurant, where Jeriel Edwards was confronted by Officer Greg Foreman, who according to court documents "was flagged down by a citizen who asked him to check out a vehicle in the driveway." Foreman, who believed "Edwards was under the influence of PCP," thought the best move would be to remove Edwards from the vehicle.
Edwards reportedly exhibited some confusion about the directions being given, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven P. Shreder of the Eastern District of Oklahoma construed Edwards' trouble understanding Foreman's instructions as resistance to a lawful arrest. That resistance by Edwards justified the use of force by Foreman and three other officers who took part in an arrest that included punches, the use of an electronic control device and a chokehold.
Shreder, in his 24-page opinion, notes Edwards pleaded no contest earlier to a criminal charge of resisting arrest but acknowledged excessive force could be used to make a lawful arrest. The law states police will be shielded from liability for civil damages when their conduct "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."
Shreder found, based upon the evidence provided, that the force used "was objectively reasonable" based upon the belief by officers that Edwards was under the influence of drugs and it ended once he was handcuffed. He also notes there was at least some level of resistance, the force ended once Edwards was restrained, and the rights claimed were not clearly established.
John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and constitutional lawyer, said police say it is imperative during encounters with law enforcement to "comply, cooperate (and) obey" in order to stay alive.
“The problem is what to do when compliance is not enough," Whitehead said in a media release on Thursday. "How can you maintain the illusion of freedom when daily, Americans are being shot, stripped, searched, choked, beaten and Tasered by police for little more than daring to frown, smile, question, challenge an order or merely exist?”
Andrea Worden, a lawyer based in Norman who worked as an affiliate with The Rutherford Institute to defend Edwards' Fourth Amendment rights, said nobody "deserves to be treated" the way police treated Edwards. She said the civil liberties organization, which provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, likely will appeal Shreder's decision.
"It is unfair that people who are most susceptible to police brutality are people who are disadvantaged — denied access to justice," the Muskogee County native said, noting Edwards would have been unable to pursue his claims had TRI not given him a scholarship to pay his filing fee. "As a defender, I know on paper he isn't an ideal client for monetary reasons, but I'm not scared by it. I operate my office based on providing my client the service I'd want if I were the client."
Worden said after "two long years" Edwards potentially finds himself "in a position without access to justice again" after Shreder's ruling on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. She remains hopeful TRI will continue to finance Edwards' claims through the appeals process.
City Attorney Roy Tucker said he was pleased with the court's decision in May to dismiss the individual claims initially filed against the city. He described the magistrate's most recent decision as "a vindication of the actions of our officers," citing the court's finding that the officers’ conduct was "'objectively reasonable' in the light of the total circumstances."
"Members of law enforcement make many difficult and potentially deadly decisions every time they respond to a call," Tucker said, acknowledging "the increasingly difficult and dangerous jobs" assigned to police. "Those decisions affect, not only the public and the victims they are assisting, but also the individual safety of the officer."
Worden said she spoke with TRI on Thursday about working with the organization on Edwards' appeal but has not made a decision. If she decides to take part, Worden said it would be "a matter of personal conviction."