A federal judge scuttled a lawsuit against the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office by a woman who was shot by police along with her 2-year-old son when a bank-robbing carjacker commandeered their car.
Joann Cooper argued officers who fired pistols and shotgun rounds 30 times into the car in 2010 violated her constitutional rights that protect against unreasonable seizure and deprivation of liberty without due process.
But Senior U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger issued a summary judgment in favor of the Sheriff’s Office, saying damage done in the shooting outside a Wendy’s restaurant on Baymeadows Road wasn’t a constitutional question.
The Constitution “does not provide a remedy for every tragedy,” Schlesinger wrote, “nor is it implicated every time a law-enforcement officer injures an innocent bystander.”
The carjacker, Jeremiah Mathis, died during the confrontation with police, but his rights weren’t at issue in the lawsuit.
Mathis had robbed a Wachovia Bank at 8715 Baymeadows Road and apparently left without a getaway ride, so he ran behind neighboring businesses, gun in hand, trying to evade police who were closing in.
When he reached Wendy’s, Mathis found Cooper stopped in the drive-thru lane with her kids and opened her car’s driver’s door. He told Cooper “I will kill you” as she yelled for him to get out and fought over the gun, knocking it from his hand after he climbed inside.
In the next few moments, four officers and a recruit fired 42 times at Cooper’s Nissan and at Mathis, some of those shots coming as the car inched out of the restaurant driveway onto Baymeadows. Cooper was shot in the foot and her son was shot in the chest and arm.
“It was a minor miracle that the aggressor — Mathis — was the only one who perished,” Schlesinger wrote.
A Sheriff’s Office review board later faulted one officer, Ryan Black, and the recruit, Darries Griffith, who between them fired 30 rounds, for shooting without considering potential danger to restaurant customers and a police supervisor who could have been shot. Both resigned their jobs soon after that.
But Schlesinger — in his opinion handed down last week — said none of that justified letting the lawsuit continue.
In an earlier chapter of the seven-year-old case, a distinct question involving Black had been passed up the judicial chain of command to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Schlesinger pointed out that the appeals court decided back then that Cooper had no basis for arguing unreasonable seizure, and said normal judicial rules keep a lower court from deciding for itself a question the appeals court has already handled.
As for deprivation of liberty –the 14th Amendment — Schlesinger wrote there was no basis to sue unless there was “evidence that the officers intended to harm Cooper and/or her son — and there is none.”
Cooper’s suit argued Jacksonville had a pattern of not training police properly on when to shoot, but the judge said that analyzing police customs “is not relevant or appropriate” if there weren’t any constitutional violations.
Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263