“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Eighth Circuit Trump judge David Stras tried to protect two police officers responsible for jailing a Black teenager for three weeks even though he did not look like the person they had seen commit a crime. Stras’s dissent came in the October 2020 case of Bell v. Neukirch.
Kansas City police officers Peter Neukirch and Jonathan Munyan saw a Black teenager wearing a white tee-shirt with a gun who, upon seeing them, threw it away and ran. Just a few minutes later and a full mile away, police stopped Tyree Bell, a Black teenager in a white tee-shirt. Neukirch and Munyan identified Bell as the person they had seen throw the gun away, even though Bell was nearly half a foot taller than the person they had described, was dressed completely differently except for the white tee-shirt, and showed no indication of having just run a mile in hot weather. Patrol car video of the original incident also showed that Bell did not resemble the suspect, but the two officers arrested him anyway, claiming he might have changed his clothes while running away. Bell spent three weeks in juvenile detention, until a detective finally looked at the patrol car footage himself and immediately saw that they had arrested the wrong person.
Bell sued the two officers who had misidentified him for unconstitutionally arresting him without probable cause. The Eighth Circuit majority—including a George W. Bush judge on President Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court—rejected the officers’ claim that they had qualified immunity from being sued, because they could not have reasonably believed they had probable cause to arrest Bell. He looked “markedly” different from the suspect. “They are both black male juveniles wearing white t-shirts, but their full descriptions diverge at that point.” The majority observed that when someone’s characteristics “differ this substantially from what reasonably would be expected from the suspect, an officer does not have probable cause for an arrest.” Furthermore, this was an “obvious case” of insufficient probable cause. Given the “glaring differences,” Bell’s right to be free from an arrest and detention under the circumstances was “clearly established,” so the officers were on notice that their actions were unconstitutional.
Trump judge Stras dissented, writing that there is “no clearly established law” that supports Bell’s claims. He stated that even if the officers “may well have placed too little weight” on how different Bell looked from the suspect, there were no binding judicial precedents with facts indistinguishable from this one.
George W. Bush nominee Judge Steven Colloton sharply criticized Stras for not even addressing whether a reasonable officer could have believed that there was probable cause to arrest Bell. By skipping that step, Colloton wrote, Stras’s approach “would allow officers qualified immunity to do the same thing again in the future.”