Fourth Circuit Confronts Issues of Race and Policing

2020 has so far seen several court opinions addressing racial discrimination in criminal cases in one way or another. A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020), struck down Louisiana’s practice of allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts, pointing to the law’s racist origins (Emily Coward blogged about the decision here). In State v. Bennett, ___ N.C. ___, 843 S.E.2d 222 (June 5, 2020) and State v. Hobbs, ___ N.C. ___, 841 S.E.2d 492 (May 1, 2020), the North Carolina Supreme Court sent back Batson claims for merits hearings at the trial court (before those decisions, Emily discussed the cases in part here). In State v. Copley, 374 N.C. 224 (April 3, 2020), the N.C. Supreme Court grappled with the issue of race in closing argument (Emily also wrote about the Court of Appeals opinion in that case here). Additionally, the court recently ruled in favor of two capital defendants in the Racial Justice Act litigation. See State v. Ramseur, ___ N.C. ___, 843 S.E.2d 106 (June 5, 2020) (holding repeal of RJA was unconstitutional as an ex post facto violation and granting evidentiary hearing on the merits of claims) and State v. Burke, ___ N.C. ___, 843 S.E.2d 246 (June 5, 2020) (same).

Turning to policing, the Court of Appeals recently weighed in on civil liability and the police, with a divided panel finding excessive force claims against the officer could proceed and affirming the trial court. See Bartley v. City of High Point, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (July 7, 2020). Although the case did not involve allegations of racial bias, it focused on immunity issues that are common in such cases. At the Fourth Circuit, two recent decisions directly addressed issues of race and policing. The first case involved the denial of qualified immunity for officers involved in the fatal shooting of a black suspect; the second dealt with warrantless pedestrian stops. Both cases raise interesting and relevant concerns in the conversation on racial justice and police reform. The excessive force case is Estate of Wayne A. Jones v. City of Martinsburg, 961 F.3d 661 (June 9, 2020) and the warrantless stop case is U.S. v. Curry, ___ F.3d ___, 2020 WL 3980362 (July 15, 2020) (en banc). Today’s post examines the excessive force decision.

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