Fourth Justice Lab qualified immunity win on the heels of three settlements continues to rectify the culture of police impunity in Louisiana
HOUMA – The ACLU of Louisiana has defeated qualified immunity for the fourth time. This time, against the Louisiana State Police (LSP), overcoming the enormous legal challenge in a lawsuit that also names the Houma Police Department and the Terrebonne Police Department. The suit concerns the unjust seizure and wrongful death of Mr. Miguel Nevarez, a 36-year-old Afro-Latino man who officers fatally shot 17 times, and the subsequent failure to produce public records in connection with his death.
On January 24, 2023, the Honorable Sarah S. Vance of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana denied a Motion to Dismiss brought by Louisiana State Police Officer-Defendants Anthony Dorris and Justin Leonard in the civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Akerman LLP on behalf of the surviving wife and children of Mr. Nevarez.
“Mr. Nevarez tragically lost his life following a disproportionate response by ill-trained, ill-supervised officers – an egregious incident representative of the oppressive policing practices against people of color that persist unchecked in this state,” said Nora Ahmed, ACLU of Louisiana legal director. “Having destroyed Mr. Nevarez’s family, leaving behind his wife and kids in the aftermath of his slaying, the Louisiana State Police had the audacity to go even further. They unlawfully obtained warrants and subsequently searched the car Mr. Nevarez was in during the incident, his family home, and his wife’s cell phone, which was unlawfully seized on the night her husband was killed. This was preposterous because the target of the warrants was no longer alive. Luckily, Judge Vance saw the situation exactly for what it was and held that the searches conducted were unconstitutional.”
In a 25-page decision, the Court concluded that LSP officers did not have probable cause in securing search warrants because Mr. Nevarez was deceased. Accordingly, they were not entitled to qualified immunity. In commenting that the LSP officers created a false narrative of criminality against Mr. Nevarez, the Court wrote, “A reasonable officer would understand that there is no probable cause to support a search warrant where, as here, the police were investigating their own use of force rather than pursuing an active criminal investigation.”
This ruling comes on the heels of three other successful Justice Lab challenges to the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity in Perkins v. Hart et al., Washington et al. v. Smith et al., and Sampy v. Rabb et al., as well as three settlements in Kennedy v. Jackson et al., Celestine v. Bissell et al., and Jackson v. Snow et al.
As alleged in the complaint, on October 13, 2020, officers approached Mr. Nevarez, claiming to be investigating a 911 call, as he sat inside his car parked in his driveway. The officers asked Mr. Nevarez to exit his vehicle. When he declined, they unnecessarily escalated the situation, surrounding Mr. Nevarez’s home with police units, cordoning off his street, and blocking his car in the driveway with an armored truck. Officers held Mr. Nevarez at gunpoint for nearly two hours. They claim Mr. Nevarez then exited his car with a gun in hand, although they never saw any such gun before this point, and additionally claim that he allegedly attempted to flee. They subsequently shot Mr. Nevarez 17 times – 7 in his back. No one on the scene rendered aid, even though Mr. Nevarez was still breathing after they fired on him. Sixty-six officers and a BearCat were present at the scene during Mr. Nevarez’s death.
LSP’s unlawful searches of Mr. Nevarez’s car, home, and Mrs. Nevarez’s phone following the fatal encounter shed light on the unconstitutional policing practices for which they are currently under investigation by the Department of Justice. LSP, the agency responsible for investigating officer-involved incidents in Louisiana, alleged it investigated the incident and found none of the officers involved committed any wrongdoing.
In pursuit of objective evidence about Mr. Nevarez’s death, including the body-worn camera footage showing his final moments, the family submitted public records requests to the records custodians of Terrebonne Parish and LSP. Those requests went largely unanswered amid various excuses, including that LSP’s investigation was ongoing. But this did not add up because Terrebonne Parish had previously produced documents showing that LSP’s investigation had closed months earlier.
Nevarez v. Coleman et al. is the 24th lawsuit filed as part of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab campaign. The program has filed 50 lawsuits against law enforcement agencies across Louisiana since launching in 2020. For more information, visit aclujusticelab.org.