The town of East Haven isn't liable in the 1997 shooting of a black man by a white police officer because evidence failed to show widespread discriminatory conduct that could support an inference that it was known and tolerated by superiors, a federal appeals court in New York ruled Wednesday.
The decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals spares the town of East Haven another trial stemming from the shooting of 21-year-old Malik Jones. His mother, Emma Jones, was seeking a trial to force the town to pay compensatory damages. A federal jury in Hartford in 2003 awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages, but a judge rejected the award.
The lawsuit had alleged that the town's custom, policy or usage of deliberate indifference to the rights of black people caused the killing of Jones in violation of his constitutional rights. The unarmed Jones was shot by an officer after a car chase. The officer said he fired his weapon because he believed Jones was trying to run him over, but witnesses said the car began moving only after the officer broke the driver's-side window of the car and shot him.
Trial testimony showed that East Haven's population in 2000 was 1.4 percent black and that the police force in much of the 1990s was all white.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court in Manhattan said it concluded that trial evidence was insufficient to prove the town routinely discriminated because it failed to show a pattern of widespread abusive conduct among officers that would have been known and tolerated by superiors.
"Whether that is because there is no real discrimination or indifference, or because plaintiff has simply failed to discover and present evidence of it, is beyond the competence of this court," the appeals court wrote. "Our ruling assesses only the sufficiency of the evidence presented at the trial - not the true facts."
It said the evidence "unquestionably showed instances of reprehensible and at times illegal and unconstitutional conduct by individual officers" but wasn't sufficient to impose liability on the municipality.
The 2nd Circuit noted that it was aware of reports about misconduct of East Haven officers, including a report last December that a Justice Department investigation concluded that the police department had "engaged in widespread biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and the use of excessive force." It also referenced the FBI's January arrest of four East Haven police officers on charges of conspiracy, false arrest, excessive force and obstruction of justice for their mistreatment of Hispanic residents in the town.
David N. Rosen, Emma Jones' lawyer, said it's "fair to say that she's disappointed but doesn't regret for a moment haven't fought for something that she believes in deeply."
He said his client's lawsuit on her son's behalf "has paved the way for all of these continuing efforts to get this department under control."
A decision on whether to appeal was pending, he added.
Town representatives didn't immediately comment.
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